Sunday, July 16, 2017

Barbados to New York

The sky has a color for recovery. When the weather has worn it thin, the morning breaks in pale yellow- the ethereal light I imagine on the inside of a fabrege egg. It was this way when we woke on our last morning in The Barbados. The clouds were in two layers and the whole of it looked like stacks of brushed grey felt. On the horizon cumulus clouds piled up like blue smoke rising out of a valley.

We had been warned that a depression was coming by the Bajans we met the previous day. They are human barometers from June to October. The rain woke us during the night, a loud and sudden applause. The boat swung and bucked at the anchor chain. That's probably the worst of it Max commented and fell back asleep. We should be fine to leave tomorrow.

In the morning we woke to a cacophony of reggaeton coming from a party boat that had stopped in its circling of the bay to linger behind us. It was a crude complement to the morning but an interesting spectacle. The bass shook the harbor and we tried to decipher the buckshot outbursts of the DJ as we drank coffee in the cockpit.

Beach front at Barbados Yacht Club

Carlisle Bay
We had so much to do before getting underway. The boat was a mess of laundry and objects, we had to do another water run, break down the dingy, and lash the jerry cans to the lifelines. We weren't in a rush considering the weather. Rain splattered now and again on the deck as if the clouds were emptying their purses onto a table. It was not a fair day, but we knew that conditions would only improve. Morning came and went, the sky lightened and we were ready to raise anchor in comparatively calm weather, though I could see the wind and whitecaps beyond the harbor.

Max went forward to raise the anchor and I handled the motor according to his hand signals. In the Chilean fjords we became skilled at this and switched roles each morning to make sure we understood what the other was feeling. While working the windlass through its seemingly limitless cranks, Max was looking around at the boats in the anchorage. He yelled something back to me, pointing to a sailboat at the far edge of the group. It was a 40' yacht that had arrived the day before from a trans-Atlantic voyage. I watched it for a while until I was sure, as Max suggested, that it was drifting. I had imagined this fate for Tortuga so many times, that we would go out for drinks, having finally arrived at a port, and while sipping rum punches under a palm tree, our anchor would drag and our home drift away. I imagined it every time we motored away from our anchored boat. We called the Barbados Coast Guard on 16 and a few moments later heard another call come through to make them aware of the same situation. It seemed that things were under control, but by the time we had the anchor up and were motoring out of the harbor, the yacht had begun to drift back toward shore. It loomed closer to an anchored crane platform beyond which were only the rocks of the breakwater. The coast guard had not arrived. We knew we would have to help. That was someone's home, or life savings drifting towards a splintery destruction. We were obligated to do something. I called the coast guard and offered help hoping they would say they had it under control. The boat was bigger than us and approaching it even in settled conditions was dangerous. I was surprised when the coast guard asked us to help.

The plan we developed in the next few minutes was that Max would make the approach, I would hop over to the boat and raft us up to the leeward side and return to our boat to manage the fenders. Then Max would switch boats and try to raise their anchor. We were close and I began digging out lines and readying fenders.

The first parts of our plan went well. I was quick with the lines and Max even quicker with the anchor of what we could now see was the Queen B out of Belgium. After making off a bow and stern line I returned to our boat to fend off. I quickly saw that the abundance of fenders between the boats, 8 in all, was not going to be enough. The waves were moving the boats against each other with such force that the fenders were reduced to nothing and the toe rail of the larger yacht rose above that of ours and was coming down with incredible force. The fenders rolled themselves up and out as quickly as I was jamming them back in place. I pushed with all my might against the shrouds of the yacht barely producing a result. I was stunned by the forces at play by my feet. The boats surged back together and I was unable to get a fender to stay in place. An unprotected space opened up and Tortuga received a gash in her topsides. Max was standing over their windlass as it cranked up the anchor. I had no time to appreciate how quickly he had figured that out. I felt like we were risking too much and started yelling, Max! Undo the lines. We have to get out of here. It's going to crush us. The toe rail of the Queen B rose up again and came down on Tortuga, flexing her beam inward an inch. Before this I had considered that toe rail, two 1/2" thick fiberglass flanges overlapping and thru-bolted joining the hull and the deck, to be unmovable. Again the boat surged up and came down. Our beam flexed inward like cheap tupperware. I yelled more and Max was like lightning at the lines, told me to gun the engine out of there and replaced me at the beam to fend off the aggressive beast of the Queen B. I ran back to the cockpit.

As I revved up the engine and pulled way from the boat we looked back to see that the Queen B was drifting due west to the comparative safety of the sea with her anchor up. The coast guard tender was closing in. I like to think we saved her, or maybe I just don't want to think that the gouge we received in our topsides, the bruises on Max's chest, and the extreme flexing of our toe rail were all in vain.

How in the world did you get that anchor up so fast? I asked Max. I just pushed a button, he said. We laughed hard at that. Our windlass is manual and it is tempting to take a nap halfway through. It shreds your back muscles. God forbid anyone need to get our anchor up in a hurry! Maybe we should put a brief instruction manual on the fore deck. I was pretty fast with the lines though, right? I added. Yeah babe, you were super fast. Let's never do that again.

We left Barbados with three reefs in the main, staysail up, and a sliver of genoa out. For two days we sailed like the devil without raising more canvas. We were on a beam reach and the self-steering system held a course next to our plotted line like train tracks to Bermuda. We were sailing up the windward side of the Lesser Antilles with 1200nm to St. Georges, Bermuda. Three hundred miles melted away in our first two days, allowing us the tolerance for the short steep waves, the treacherous jolting of the cabin, and the constant annoyance of salt spray. We are okay with discomfort when it means speed.

We expected to ride the easterly trade winds until latitude 23 degrees north and then negotiate a high pressure area that lingers east of the Gulf Stream and south of Bermuda. We expected to make excellent progress for about five days and then have to motor through the high. We used a course prediction software to see how it combined the information from the GRIB files, currents, and pilot charts to plot a course to Bermuda. It suggested a course that was due north with a slight westward bow. We realized we would have to pound on a close reach for several days until the trade winds diminished and then hope for advantageous winds in the high. For fun we plotted the course to NY. That course was more downwind, only four days longer, and made use of the Gulf Stream and the stretch of ocean where the trade winds extend a bit further North. I have come to realize that there is no island, no white sand beach, or colorful reef, no fruity cocktail or palm frond bar worth a week of upwind pounding. The spray, the slight nausea, the swamp-ass, the pounding of the rigging. I'd rather sail downwind to New Jersey than upwind to Tahiti. Well, that might be taking it too far, but gets the point across- NY was looking better and better.

Sailing Life in the Trades
We decided to continue on, between the track to New York and that to Bermuda, and decide later according to the wind. On the second night of our passage, we began our watches with this question in our minds. I relieved Max at 1:30 a.m. and began as always, with a cup of coffee above deck adjusting my eyes to the dark horizon. We were still heavily reefed and making seven knots in 4-6 ft waves. At 3:00 am I felt an entirely new, and very strange sensation. I was at the Nav station and it felt, all of the sudden, as it we have sailed into a pillow. The speedometer dropped to zero and waves slapped the hull. If we had been on the Hudson River I would have known that we were aground, but we were far off land and in very deep water. Having experienced that many times, in a confused sea, a certain timing and arrangement of waves hitting the hull can cause the boat to flounder and almost completely stop, I went above deck to get us back on track manually.

It wasn't working. We were completely stopped in the middle of the ocean with considerable waves and 15-20 knots of wind. Twenty-three miles west was the lee shore of Guadeloupe. My heart beat quickened and I called into the cabin, Max, um, we seemed to have stopped. Max brought up a spotlight and we saw the problem. Back from our rudder ran a thick grouping of polypropylene lines with buoys every ten feet. In other words, a single tether made of three lengths of 1.25 inch poly line bound together was stretched taut, hooked around our rudder deep in the water. It stretched off into the darkness. Around the stern were clustered a huge barrel, many enormous floats, a torn fishing net and spiderwebs of lines holding everything together. It was a meticulously woven system complete with elaborate chafe gear. It could have anchored a tanker. To complicate things our boat was surging violently in the waves, moving up and down four to five feet at a time. This was enough to bring water on deck on the down surge and the mess of lines far out of reach on the upsurge.

Our first plan was to grab the main line with a boat hook. This was humorously ineffective. We tried to reach them with our hands. Also impossible. Our choices were limited, the lee shore an issue, and the source of the problem was visible but deep in the water. Max decided he would have to get in and dive to cut the lines. Nothing wracks my nerves like Max getting into a black, seething ocean with a sharp knife and line wrapped around him, but my mind struggled for an alternative. I rambled off the dangerous possibilities as he prepared himself-you'll get knocked out by the boat and I won't be strong enough to help, you'll cut the line and I will sail away without you, you will drown, you will impale yourself. However, there was no alternative and not much time. I also knew that Max would stop if he felt it unsafe. I set to work duct taping lights to the stern pulpit to illuminate his work space. while Max prepared himself for the water. Is this a bowline, he asked, after tying one up close around his torso. Yes, I answered and worked on getting the ladder in place.

He started down, flying fish all around him as if congregating for a spectacle advertised by our spot lights. Once in the water I kept telling him to take his time and he did, beginning by stabbing the large float and returning to the ladder while the waves deflated it. They picked him up and dunked him under several times. As soon as it was calm he went and cut away the thinner lines on the float, moving quickly and aggressively. It was out of the way and he dove for the main line. I saw him beneath the water and the stern rising and falling with all its ballast towards him and felt sick. That is an image that I will not soon forget. I could see that it wouldn't work. The lines were too deep, too thick, and the rudder was like a rodeo bull. He surfaced and we both said at the same time, this isn't safe. Once he was in the cockpit I told him I just really felt like we could pull the floats that were tied off to the side towards the boat and cut them loose one by one. But it's not the main line Max said, the main line is what is holding us. I know, but I just really feel like I'm right. Okay, he said.

I undid the canvas lee cloths around the stern and Max held the light while I tried to grab the first line I could reach. The boat pulled it violently from my hand crushing my fingers against the toe rail. I yelped and decided another approach was needed. I decided to wrap a line around it and make it off to the winch. As the mess of lines in the water surged upwards, I grabbed the thickset bundle and tied a bowline. It was the first time the speed of a bowline actually mattered! I brought the line to the winch and raised it up to where I could cut. I began cutting and was shocked at the density of the woven polypropylene. It felt like cutting into cement. I sawed and sawed grunting like a stuck pig with the gunnel in my ribs. Holy shit, I said to Max. It took ten minutes to get through that line and as it dropped, it didn't seem to change a thing. I felt defeated but Max egged me on saying he thought I was on to something. He lassoed the next line and I held the light for him as he sawed. The boat heaved and a wave washed over us. We fell over and lost the line. Getting it back again Max cut into the place where he had made progress and a short time later it fell away. We still hadn't even touched the main line, the one that held the rudder, but we were tired. The difficulty of cutting the line was intimidating. We knew for certain that it couldn't be done underwater. We struggled to do it from the cockpit. Let's take a break, Max said. Okay, I think we will be able to crank forward the main line soon. We sat back and, after a few minutes, the feeling of the boat just changed. The speedometer read three. I think we are moving. No way. We shined the light over the back and saw clear water. We saw no floats, nets, or lines, like it had all been imagined. Cutting the floats free had allowed the main line to sink as we surged upwards in the waves freeing our rudder in the process. We were elated, exalted in our freedom, laughing, celebrating our triumph. I raised the sails and sent Max back to sleep. It was his watch again in a few hours.

The next day was a wonderful day at sea. Not only were we riding the high of having escaped danger for a second time, but the weather had cleared and the sea settled down. We raised all sails and continued to average over six knots. Without the annoyance of spray we could open the hatches and cool the cabin down. We took turns sleeping off the drama of the previous night like two cats, lazy in the day and up to all sorts of adventures at night. Did you notice the chafe gear on that mess last night, Max asked. Yeah, I said, it was the same hose we bought in Guadeloupe a year ago at that hardware store. Some French fisherman is going to be pissed off today. Yeah, but maybe he will light his gear next time.

We returned again and again to our question of Bermuda versus New York. Could this be our last passage? Could it be over in 14 days. Were we ready to be home? Would we not enjoy the break in Bermuda or would it just be another stop where we had to set up the dingy, move water and fuel, check into immigration, spend hundreds on all of the above, just to see a harbor where we have already seen and visit beaches when we really would prefer to be in NYC surrounded by friends and family, celebrating the greatest achievement of our lives, with little more work to do. Again, we postponed our decision, settled into a comfortable broad reach and let the miles reduce.

The trade winds sustained us at 6-7 knots until the 6th day when the flogging of the mainsail convinced me to start the motor. We had entered the North Atlantic high pressure area, but had had a pretty good run. Sailing in a high pressure zone isn't a desired fate as there is little wind, but we seemed to be riding the green wave, so to speak, of just enough wind to sustain us. When I turned on the engine we were prepared for it to remain on until the opposite end of the high pressure zone, hundreds of miles later, but four hours later we were sailing again. In the flat seas, with 8-10 knots of wind, we maintained a course towards New York with all sails full.

Tortuga performs very well in light wind on flat seas. We were able to enjoy the other characteristics of high pressure. The sun was out everyday and no squalls were running us down and confusing our wind. The sea returned to the cobalt glow of the doldrums and intricate swaths of mustard colored Sargasso weed floated past. Sometimes we sailed through a patch big enough to look like an old shag carpet covered the sea. The visibility was incredible with cumulus clouds far away on the horizon and not moving. We were able to clearly see the sunset and sunrise as well as the moon rise and the moon set. What a pleasure it is to see the celestial bodies so clearly move through their orbits. The sky seemed so large a dome that we imagined ourselves as a small ship inside a snow globe. It had been like this in the Pacific and, struggling through the South Atlantic, we wondered if it would ever be that way again.

After a dinner of chowmein noodles with peanut sauce on our seventh night we sat on the bowsprit and watched the sun sink, an event that was happening later and later, reminding us that we were headed for the New York summer. Talk of Bermuda had been fading naturally, overtaken by anticipations of home. Too many sentences started with I can't wait or I am so excited to... We exhausted ourselves on talk of home and then banished talk of home. We tried to focus on what we would miss about this life. We looked back at our boat sailing along vigorously in the breeze, sails full, slightly heeled, on a perfect course. I thought about the number of miles Tortuga had managed in such elegant balance while we were lost in our daydreams. I wondered if I had taken it for granted. I questioned whether I had cherished every moment or if that was even possible.

The other night you called out Stan! in your sleep, I said to Max.


Yeah, I sat next to you and asked if you were okay. You yelled, what about Stan? like you were worried. I asked you if you loved Stan and you shook your head and blurted out yes! 

Stan, short for Stanchion, is our future and hypothetical dog. He started as a joke, a way to epitomize my longing for home. He came about through a recurring daydream I had about sitting in a rocking chair on a porch in the summer and scratching the head of a loyal dog. I would say to Max, I can't wait to meet Stan, and would mean that I couldn't wait to feel settled, be responsible, be home. Stan's character grew until we were narrating future days together in the Hudson Valley were we would take Stan for a walk, he would wake us up, he would need to go to the vet, etc. Stan became synonymous with home. When Max told me he loved Stan in his sleep, I knew exactly what he meant.

The days in the doldrums started to pass slowly. It is just so hot when there is no wind or cloud cover. In the early morning Venus makes a stunning appearance on the horizon. Many times we have mistaken this bright star for a ship until we see it rise, which it does quickly. Not too long afterwards the sky begins to lighten. The clouds differ in shade from the sky beyond. Charcoal gray and slate blue. The sun appears later in cheerful yellows, turning the sky a softer, more birthday boy blue. I sit perched like a monkey with coffee in hand and harness around my chest. Then the heat begins and the delicate sun turns on us with the heat of a acetylene torch, a welder working next to you, a summer job flipping burgers over a grill, and we hide like vampires. Sheets and clothes designated for the purpose are strung up all around the cockpit and we take to our shelter for a long day of motoring, reading, and working up the appetite for day whatever of cabbage salad. Max throws roadblocks in the way of my complaints- at least we have fuel, at least the sea is flat. Yes, I know, at least I was born with ten fingers and ten toes. At least my eyeballs didn't fall out during the night.

During these slow, hot days our routines sustain us. At four we play cards on the deck. We are most entertained by a version of the northern German game of Skat which is extremely complicated and requires three players. All other games don't stand the test of time. In the method of Max's family, we replace the third player with the "oma" who is a senile grandma who never plays the correct suite but seems to get all the best cards. When Max's parents were with us we didn't have to play with Oma and Skat hour became the highlight of the day, each one of us playing to the best of our ability, counting cards and trying to beat each other. With Oma we just laugh at the silly moves she makes. We play until five when we have cocktail hour. The quality of cocktails diminishes dramatically as the days pass. By week two we are drinking the type of concoctions a fourteen year old would make. Warm.

On day nine I took down the empty fruit hammocks. This time they would not be refilled. It was time to start saying goodbye to our life at sea. We no longer spoke of Bermuda. The idea faded out and the thought of stopping even became ridiculous. Remember when we wanted to go to Bermuda? and we would laugh. Each day I slowed down to appreciate a moment, a practice, a tactic for negotiating life at sea. It was time to process the end. Everything we did we did with an understanding that life would soon be very different. Instead of helping each other bathe by dumping buckets of sea water over each other's head, we would disappear into our hot showers separately. Instead of strapping oneself into the kitchen for dinner preparations, having already assembled the necessary ingredients, we would be casually cooking in a flat room, glass of wine on a flat counter, gravity once more our ally. We would go back to work, rising before dawn and dressing in nice clothing. Wearing shoes again. Paying bills again. We would separate during the day and have our own experiences. The bathroom would have a door. I'm going to miss talking to you while you are going to the bathroom in the morning, I say to Max. You can still do that, he reassured me.

After three days in the doldrums the wind started to fill in. The barometer dropped and squalls came to wash the thick crust of salt off the deck. We were adjusted to the rythm of our six hour night watches and were thankful for the broad reach and return of the wind. Even the squall was welcomed. We were out of the high and making good miles towards New York. Max's dad was keeping us posted on the development of a tropical depression off Cape Verde. It was almost stationary and building which indicates the possibility of a larger, more dangerous storm later. If we had been a little later in leaving Brazil, this may have been a big problem. Where we were, however, there was little chance it would turn north and catch up with us. I can't understate the feeling of slipping out of our second hurricane season in the Caribbean unscathed.

In addition to our good fortune concerning hurricane season, it looked like the conditions all the way to New York would be favorable. Even the blow forecasted for off of Cape Hatteras, that nightmarish stretch of water, would hit the day after we sailed by, if we kept up our speed. Could we be so lucky? The most important element of this being our last passage for me was that I wanted to end on a high note. I wanted, but knew I had no right to expect, a fair passage with moderate wind and little rain. I wanted to celebrate all the wonderful things, all the best types of days and not feel filthy, wet, and desperate for land.

As the last several days of our passage took shape, I realized my wish was being granted. We motored little, were picked up and buoyed along by the Gulf Stream, and did not want for wind. Our worst day it blew a gale and the waves hit our beam in rows and reached six to eight feet. However, the sun shone and it blew itself out before nightfall. I didn't begrudge the ocean one day of gale force wind in thirteen, or the morning I was assaulted by heavy squalls and ran through nearly every sail arrangement and point of sail in one watch before collapsing in bed. That's just sailing and we were damn lucky that's all we were hit with.

Within 150 miles of NYC the chart starts to warn of civilization with notes like Dump Site Sewage Sludge, Unexploded Bomb, Dump Site Acid Waste, and then Cholera Bank just off Sandy Hook. Little footballs mark the wrecks. Ah, New York. The once pristine Hudson River estuary. Thankfully, most of these notes say discontinued next to them and are the sins of the past. Who was it that raised the idea that the ocean was not a toilet bowl I wonder.

We began our approach to New York on the evening of our thirteenth day. If we averaged five knots we would arrive in the morning. I am made uncomfortable by night approaches to busy harbors because the lights are overwhelming and I doubt my depth perception. Max is totally cool with it as proven by our dramatic night entrance to the Panama canal, or to Rio Grande in Brazil. I decided to take the first watch and let him have the morning, the sunrise, the Verrazano Narrows. I would take the last sunset, the rising full moon, and the first sighting of land.

We ate our last meal, penne with horrible canned meatballs from Brazil, and Max went to sleep. The sky turned lavender and an orange moon rose. A large squall line moved over the sunset like smeared blue eye shadow and I looked lovingly back and forth between the moon rise and sunset. The sky darkened and the horizon came alive with phosphorescent caterpillars, and we were among the ships entering New York Harbor.

Map from our Satphone Tracking

Last Sunrise of the Trip

Coffee on Deck heading for the Verrazano 

Tortuga in NYC

En-route from New York to Kingston

Tortuga back in the Hudson Valley

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