Sunday, August 28, 2016

Deshaise, Guadeloupe to Santa Marta (starring Henny)

We left Deshaise, Guadeloupe on August 11, a day after Max returned from Germany with his cousin Henrik, who was bold enough to sail with us to Colombia.  After leaving the harbor, we set the sails wing on wing for the downwind course I had been dreaming of and started figuring out how the self-steering system would work on this point of sail. It took us six days to reach Santa Marta, Colombia. We sailed 792 miles, and our moving average was 5.8 knots. The odometer currently reads 2837 miles.

Our passage began in the long lee of Guadeloupe. The wind was inconsistent and sail adjustments frequent and frustrating. However, we were comfortable, dry, and filled with energy. We let out the fishing line and sea stowed our gear. As we moved out of the wind shadow, the trade winds steadied themselves and the swell became heavier.

On day two, I wrote this in my journal:

It is our second day underway from Gwada to Colombia. We are sailing wing on wing and Max has the self-steering system perfectly tuned. The trade winds and the waves that follow, their faces blotched by mustard patches of Sargasso weed. Max reels in the fishing line and two swallows roller
coaster after the clutch of Sargasso on the lure, tails forking and coming together. Our first 24 hrs brought us 104 miles. There wasn't much wind through the night, stolen by the circle of squalls that seems to travel with us without touching us. We are all hot and have taken to dumping buckets over over heads and napping in the shade. 

Night watch August 12

Our ship slides unnoticed through the dark sea. She doesn't groan or shudder. There is only the whir of the wind generator, the wash of wave noise in each ear, and the bird-like squawk of a block under strain. Compass 240. On rails. The intoxicating comfort of a broad reach at 1 a.m.The moon looks as orange as a cheap Halloween decoration, and I am able to write with my feet braced on cockpit surfaces. Max's cousin has joined us and his bathing suit twirls on the life line next to my shoulder. On the lee side, though we are not very heeled, Max sleeps in a mess of cushions and sheets. His watch ended at midnight but we both knew it was blasphemous to go below on a night like this. This point of sail, this warm and steady wind, this part of the ocean, this particular August and the empty horizon. This is about as good as it gets.  

Here is an excerpt from Max's journal from August 14-15th:

It's hard to decide what to write about.  I suppose if anything is going to make sense to the reader, I better start from the beginning.  On July 25th my grandfather passed away.  Laura and I were in Isle Del Saintes coming up with different ways to kill time before our next passage to Colombia.  At first I wasn't going to go to the funeral for a verity of reasons. We were in the Caribbean and the funeral was in Germany, flights would be prohibitively expensive, what would we do with the boat, would Laura be safe on her own?  Laura encouraged me to go right from the beginning, but I resisted.  Regardless of the logistical challenges, I reasoned that funerals are just social constructs and certainly won't affect how I remember my grandfather and how I mourn his passing.  The funeral happened to land on the one week it was feasible for me to attend given that there were no approaching storms during peak hurricane season.  The window of opportunity nagged at me until finally I gave in.  I was going to take an unexpected trip to Northern Germany barely one month into a year long sailing adventure.  Naturally I was excited to see friends and family, but at the same time seeing them made me feel like our trip was over, like this gathering was the climatic end to a extended summer vacation, after which it was time to go back to New York, work, and the predictable routines of normal life.  Thank god that wasn't the case, however my subconscious refused to believe me until we were back bobbing along with Tortuga.  Regardless, the funeral was great and I will be happy I went for the rest of my life.  I even had the honor of carrying the casket along with five other grand children and grand nephews.  Two thoughts went through my head as we carried the casket.  One was how heavy it was.  My grandfather was not a frail shrunken version of himself as you may expect at age 97.  Instead he was built like an antique piece of furniture, his wardrobe reflecting a traditional elegance and his body proudly wielding all the power gravity had allotted him.  I was selected under the assumption that  my sailing experience had made me strong but I guess people underestimate the mechanical advantage winches and blocks can provide.  The second thing I thought about was how I was carrying my grandfather back up what I believe is the same isle that he walked my mother down when she married my father.  He was there at a time that could be considered a beginning to me, and I was there at a time that could be considered an end to him.  For some reason this thought comforted me.  A simple cycle with a modest church as a timeless backdrop.  That's certainly something I would have missed out on back in Guadalupe.

So the funeral came and went and now we are back on Tortuga riding the trades on our way to Colombia.  I managed to recruit additional crew in the form of my cousin Henrik who bought a ticket
on my flight a mere six hours prior to boarding.  Being underway again feels great but I can't help but feel anxious.  It felt rushed to get off an international flight and leave on a 750 mile passage the next morning.  I felt like my time in Germany had distracted me, and I wasn't able to go through my usual routine of mental preparation prior to setting off.  I didn't review the charts for obstacles in our path prior to leaving like I usually do.  We sailed for  full day and a half before I realized that we were about to leave some island or rock a mere 30 miles off our port beam.  That was stupid.  My grandfather would be turning in his grave if he knew.  Not that he was a sailor but he wouldn't like the idea of me being careless at his expense. I gave my head a good shake and did my best to become more aware of my surroundings, but even so I'm still anxious.  I'm anxious about a low pressure system spontaneously forming and running us down from the east.  I'm anxious about pirates off the Venezuelan coast to our south. Most of all I am anxious of what lies ahead to our west.  Off the Guajira Peninsula we are expecting 30+ knot winds and 12 foot
seas.  Tortuga can handle it but an impending blow is bound to cause some apprehension.  I am anxious about checking into Colombia, which can be a bureaucratic hassle according to the online forums. I don't want to be missing some critical document and get fined or have to bribe some official.  I can already picture the chubby customs guy shrugging and saying, "You see sir, this form says ABC and not XYZ so..... you're fucked".  Most of all, I'm anxious about the Panama Canal.  Every time I thing about it all I can picture is unbearable humidity, oily water, and fees stacked on fees as we get swallowed up on one end and spit out the other.  Its still 800+ miles away but I can feel it getting closer.  All these anxieties are making me feel claustrophobic in this little Caribbean sea. I can't wait to get to the Pacific where we can stretch out and breath.  Where Tortuga can sail herself wherever she wants and we don't have to coax her to head up or fall off to avoid this land or that island. Laura and I have never sailed there, and I'm not sure if Tortuga has.  Regardless, I have the feeling all three of us are going to like it.  Its just a matter of getting there. But as always, we will just take it one step at a time and Ill do my best to relax and enjoy myself in the mean time.

And so the first several days of the passage went. Hot but comfortable. Big waves but fast. We have taken to counting our blessings. If there is no wind and we are rolling so that no berth is secure and
the sails beat up on themselves, at least it isn't raining. If we are close-hauled with the rail buried enough to make me climb uphill to the head, at least we are making good time. If the wind is light and from behind, the cockpit as hot as a Florida parking lot, at least a squall hasn't hit. On this passage we experienced many of these conditions, but for a few magic days there we hardly touched the tiller and averaged 6 knots towards Colombia.

After those lovely days passed, the ocean seemed to change. Waves got bigger, and then bigger again. The wind picked up and remained there. Squalls started to hit and we took to our foulies looking a little less excited. We knew that this was coming, that we would be uncomfortable until we made it around the Guajira Pennisula, which felt like it took a long time despite the incredible speed with which we started to surf down waves. The wind remained steady at 30 knots for two days. We sailed with a storm trysail and the staysail and still broke our 24 hour record, bringing it to 151 miles. We watched as enormous waves came up on our stern and the boat rode over them. There were a few times were I felt no gravity on the way down or some contradictory wave action filled the cockpit with water.

There were times when our morale would sink. Sometimes you just want the wind to stop, or to be dry for more than five minutes after changing, and the conditions just won't allow that. This passage provided many antidotes for that- a pod of Minke whales that surrounded us, even taking the lure for a minute (Max reeled it in and the whale followed right up to the stern), or a group of dolphins that stayed with us for a long time jumping in threes out of the waves faces, stacked under the bowsprit like a can of sardines. We even had a night when flying fish bombarded our boat in such numbers Henny and I couldn't throw them back fast enough. Three flew right into the cabin and in the morning, despite returning around 100 back to the sea, our catwalk was still covered with fish. We spent the morning launching them into the air like clay pigeons for the birds. Without a doubt, the ocean seemed to sustain more life as we moved towards Colombia.

Our approach to Santa Marta was one of the highlights of the trip for me. I have never visited this country but have always felt a relation to it, mostly because of a gift of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude from my friend Caro when I was 16. Every book of his I have ever read and all the stories I have made students read make more sense to me now. The peaks and beaches of El Parque Tayrona come into view and there is something ancient and mysterious about them. I knew there would be magic here for us. The night of the flying fish is just like a line from Marquez. The empty and dramatic coastline of this incredible park gave me strong feelings of discovery, of the unknown, of far and exotic places. We were transfixed by the beauty of it and the knowledge that it was ours to explore. When we got closer to Santa Marta the landscape changed to a cactus covered mountain desert. We saw huge cranes on the dock and the typical stack of Maersk containers. We followed a 70 meter container ship into the city. We really didn't know what to expect of Colombia and that was pretty exhilarating.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Iles des Saintes, Dominica, Guadeloupe

Our new life is one month old. Things have fallen into something like predictability, mysteries have been solved, confidences gained, habits curtailed, and routines established. Already the boat has come slightly undone. We imagine returning with the boat in much the same shape as when we found her. This time the wear will be from use instead of neglect. Smudges stand out on the topcoat from careless dingy approaches, the staysail has been torn and patched, and much of the teak has found its way out of the varnish to silver in the sun. The wind and water don't stand down from watch. Around the clock they work to defeat our barriers, turning the weakness of metals into rust, sagging the fabrics around the cockpit. The deck box I once cherished was given away to the first willing fisherman in Iles des Saintes. Unsanded and unpainted epoxy mounds cover the holes were that box once was. Maybe we will sand and paint, maybe not, but the V-berth is as dry as an archaeological dig.

The elements have worked on us as well. We are all shades of bright white and brown, covered with cuts, bruises, and big flakes of sea salt stand out on our knees and forearms. The rules of this life are abundantly clear. A beautiful boat does not matter; a dry boat is non-negotiable. Refrigeration isn't necessary. It's actually quite freeing to give up the scleping of ice for a warm rum punch. It also
feels better to eat plain pasta than risk throwing a bag of chicken overboard. We have learned to provision sparingly. We don't eat half as much as we anticipated, and everything goes bad very quickly, though our vacuum-sealed Sam's Club Gruyere has only improved after three weeks in the bilge. Showering is also overrated; if you both smell it doesn't matter. These concessions to the sailing life make icy bottles of beer and fresh water showers truly exquisite.

People like to say that the two best days of boat ownership are the day you buy the boat and the day
 you sell the boat. I hate that saying. The best two days for us are the first day we arrive in port and the first day we are underway. Those days are filled with the unknown. I love when we approach a new port and what seemed like solid shoreline defines itself, revealing an entrance and a protected
harbor.  We locate the mooring field or anchorage, and making our plan for approach, I look at the turquoise water and the little harbor town for signs of life. Our boat finds its swing on the line and we take the dingy ride to shore, at first so adventurous and quickly so routine. We usually look for cold beer first and find a terrace in the sun where Max can order a Heineken and I a Carib. Coldest beers so far were from Loft Cafe in Rousseau, Dominica. Also the cheapest. Our first night in port combines three of my favorite things: cold drinks, clean sheets, and a thorough shower on the deck.

In Iles des Saintes, our second stop, we enjoyed Napoleon's legacy through pate and butter smeared on fresh baguettes and steep hikes to forts packed with goat and hermit crab squatters. We walked the small town day after day, snorkeled the reefs, ate at a fancy restaurant with our table in the
sand, and worked on the boat for the first half of each day. We attempted to fix the leaking toe rail, extracted and re-bedded key portholes, and gave the dingy a complete overhaul. After six days we were done with Iles des Saintes. We loaded up on baguettes, petite cans of foie gras, rich French butter, and set out for Dominica. The truth is that if we start to feel like we are on vacation too much, something essential is lost. So now we know to move on after about six days.


I have been to Dominica once before, with the exceptional crew of the Harvey Gamage, and have always wanted to return. Iles des Saintes to Dominica is a drastic cultural shift that exposes the sordid history of colonial powers in the Caribbean. It was owned by the French, the British, and the natives still live in the rugged interior where no European was willing to follow.

We rented a mooring from a fisherman named Markus in one hundred feet of water directly in front of his corrugated sheet metal house where he lived with his pregnant wife. I liked Markus and he demonstrated exactly the
welcoming spirit that makes one return to Dominica. He had recently dropped a brand new outboard off his boat in that depth of water and was pretty pissed about it. He told us the story within a few minutes, while handing me the mooring line, and I often saw him rowing around, looking down in order to see it.

Dominica is not for the faint of heart. Iles de Saintes is where the faint of heart should go. Dominica is steep, rainy jungle and dark sand beaches. Reefs bubble with volcanic activity, 7 or 9 active volcanoes (depending on the rasta with whom you are speaking) disappear into the clouds, and 365 rivers flood and ebb with frequent rain.

The streets of the capital, Rousseau, are not pristine, or even clean, but they burst with culture. Markets bear unidentifiable fruits and women sell fried flying fish for pennies. Young men ride through town in the beds of pickup trucks filled with coconuts, machetes on their shoulders. Everyone wants a Toyota. The interior has the topography of a tropical Princess Bride. There is a boiling lake, a valley of desolation, dense jungle filled with wild ginger and turmeric, deep gorges with marble smooth curves, bubbling sulfur mud and strange birds singing in the canopy.

Max and I hiked to the boiling lake with a local guide named Kenny. He was loquacious to say the least, knew everything about the history of Dominica, the trees, the birds, but really wanted to talk about Donald Trump. Specifically, he wanted us, as Americans, to answer for Trump. There was an amazing moment,13 miles into a 14 mile hike, in mudslide level rains when he stopped and demanded that we explain, until he understood, the primary process in the US.  We explained it, not easily, shouting through the rain, and when he understood, he became actually angry. He shouted that it couldn't be true, but we insisted. I saw a slight change in his eyes as he made a realization and then shouted, "Government is shit in America too, not just Dominica," and smiled. I really, really love this island. Go there. Hike the boiling lake. Ask for Kenny.

After Dominica we sailed north to Guadeloupe. Max flew to Germany to be with his family for the funeral of their beloved grandfather and I am on a mooring in a picturesque harbor with
turtles for friends and boat projects underway. Of course I miss Max, but it's good for me to have all the boat responsibility. I have finally begun to actually think about conserving power, run the engine when necessary, and check on every little thing over and over. After a sleepless and stormy night where our mooring line parted and the safety line almost went, I have become an expert on proper mooring line tying techniques, and check ours to analyze chafing every hour. I have taken on all Max's paranoia.

Right now, however, the water is flat, clear enough to see the turtles eating the grass at the bottom, and the sun is setting on the bright red steeple that dominates my view of town. Max returns Wednesday, and Thursday we set off for El Parque Tayrona, Colombia.
Atop Fort Josephine, Iles a cabrit

Iles des Saintes

Iles des Saintes

Iles des Saintes

Main Street, Terre de Haut

Iles des Saintes Harbor

Passage to Dominica

Champagne Reef, Dominica

Kenny on the way to the boiling lake

My disgusting foot looking extra weird

Stormy waters in Guadeloups

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Max and his lil friend in Iles des Saintes