Thursday, May 17, 2007

April Sailing Saga

Atwood Beach, Acklins Island

Tiny octopus in Paul's hand
Let go of the Heineken House!

Mahi onboard in the cockpit

Karen and Paul with the 1/2 filleted fish

Mahi 2 onboard

Beach party on Conception Island

KISS has nothing on Paul with the mahi roe

Flying fish smooch

Karen relaxing on a smooth Gulf Stream crossing

Awesome beaches

Tight entry--so much easier going out than in

So close you can see the boat's shadow on the rocky wall

Yellowtail snapper

Karen on Cape Eleuthra beach swing

Sunset off Little Iguana Island

Jason at bow

Jason and Karen off Royal Island

Conception Island sunset from the beach party

Dinghy bridge into Georgetown, Exuma

Cape Eleuthera sunset from the marina

Dog Star at Cape Eleuthera marina

Little Iguana sunset

Pretty blue water

Karen at beach party

Dog Star

Sheryl and Paul Wharey, our gracious hosts

So we got back from the repeated groundings in the ICW and the Chesapeake adventures and we turned right around and drove to Raleigh, NC where we parked the car and hopped on a plane for San Juan, Puerto Rico. That is where Paul and Sheryl Wharey had their sailboat "Dog Star." We'd met them in the Caribbean 1500 Rally and we really hit it off well with them. They asked us to help bring their boat back from the Caribbean to their home port in NC. Option 1 was a 16 day offshore passage to make the trip in one big jump. Option 2 was to island hop all the way back. Of course we chose option 2! How silly do you think we are? (Don't answer that!)

Since we booked our flights while anchored in a cove behind some luxury condos in the Chesapeake, we didn't have time to dither when it came to catching a deal for flights. The internet connection closed just after we booked the flights so we were lucky to get cheap flights down (I think the open wireless internet connection was probably some kid doing homework and when it reached his bedtime the computer got shut down). Anyway, the flights got us to San Juan just before midnight. Paul Wharey was a real trooper and met us at the airport to pick us up. We didn't realize the boat was in Ponce, Puerto Rico on the other side of the island!

Our luggage barely fit into the rental car, we had a case of wine, all our snorkeling gear and foul weather stuff so it was big, bulky and HEAVY. It all had to fit into soft-sided luggage, as there is no storage space for hard-sided suitcases on boats! Paul pretended to get lost getting out of the airport and getting onto the highway, but I think he really just wanted to show us his favorite new store "Condom World!" Can't get enough of some things, I guess... We found the highway entrance and less than 2 hours later we were at the dinghy dock in Ponce.

Sheryl had stayed up waiting for us and straightening up the boat for our arrival. We climbed onto the boat and went straight to bed. Later that morning, we met the boat traveling with them, "Little Hawk," and we set off to provision the boats and take care of the last of our land-based chores. Jason refused to send Uncle Sam our tax money any earlier than necessary, so I had to find a Post Office in PR to mail them our 1040. The postmark was early but would've been happy if they took the slow boat back to the US!

We left at midnight to time the tides and currents in the Mona Passage and headed out for Mayaguana Island in the Bahamas. We bypassed the Dominican Republic as they'd heard (and we'd also read) that the check-in/check-out procedures for the country were cumbersome and rife with corruption at every port. Such a hassle to provide "gifts" (a.k.a. bribes) to every official at every juncture that it just isn't worth it for many cruisers to visit the country. The Dominican Republic has such beautiful beaches, and we had been insulated from the corruption when we'd visited some of their all-inclusive resorts in the past. Didn't know if they included the bribes! So we sailed on for a couple of days. I missed seeing the whales the others saw near Dog Star, whales move more quickly than I do, apparently. One whale was bigger than Dog Star!

We finally reached The Turks & Caicos Islands on Easter weekend. We found a pretty spot off West Caicos to anchor, but the Customs/Immigration entry point is on the island of Providenciales, the next island up the chain. Others sailors ahead of us informed us that the officials were not working over the holiday weekend and we'd have to wait until Tuesday to check in or pay hefty weekend/holiday/overtime charges to get them to come to us. So we spent the night and snorkeled the reef near us.

Paul found a couple of nice conch and showed us how to "bark the conch," i.e. get the animal out of the shell and peel it so it can be chopped up for conch fritters. He peeled it with his teeth! It was a slow process to get the conch ready for cooking, (lots of slicing, pounding, and cutting) but the resulting fritters were excellent and sooooo yummy! We picked our way back out between the coral heads and reef/rocks before it got dark, and then we left as soon as it was light enough to see the next morning. We didn't want to interupt the officials' Easter dinner, so we were never "officially" in the Caicos (Sssshhhhhhhhh, don't tell anyone...).

We headed up towards Mayaguana and finally met up with some other boats that had left before us. There was a "Gang of 7" boats that had been in the Caribbean 1500 on the way down last November and were now all headed back up to Florida or the East Coast somewhere, so they decided to travel in company.

Having so many like-minded sailors and boats in one location means lots of rum!!! Every night was happy hour on a different boat. Each boat brought an hors d'oeurve to share. I'd never imagined that cream cheese was such a staple for cruisers, and so versatile! One night three different boats brought cream cheese with hot pepper jelly over it. That's almost spooky weird if you ask me. We also had it covered with salsa, crab dip, shrimp dip, and mixed with pumpkin butter (the latter my suggestion and it was a big hit).

We snorkeled on the sunny calm days when the water was pretty and we saw lots of reef fish, star fish, urchins, coral, ells, and sea fans. One day Jason and I saw several parrotfish as big as pillows. I found a tiny octopus who'd made an empty Heineken bottle his new home. I picked up the bottle thinking it was just trash on the beautiful white sandy bottom and thought it was plugged with wax--someone's old candle. I stuck my finger in the bottle and felt the suction from the tiny arms of the octopus, "that's not wax!" So I carried it back to the boat and got a bucket and coaxed the little guy out of the bottle. He was pissed-off and shot around inside the bucket squirting black ink and water jets. He was no bigger than my hand when stretched out so we dumped him back over the side to try to find a new trash-free home.

New fact learned: Barracuda like chicken skin and chicken fat. We were grilling chicken thighs on the BBQ grill on the aft deck of the boat in a pretty little bay while at anchor with several other boats. We don't eat the skin, so when we saw a big four foot barracuda swim by the boat, we tossed out one of the skins. He smelled it immediately and swam back to us. He approached it gingerly and sniffed it first (if fish can sniff) and then one big flap of the toothy jaw made it disappear. He raced off but another skin in the water brought him racing right back. It was like the fish was a dog with a bone. When we ran out of goodies for him, he went visiting the other boats we found out later. We saw several big barracuda while snorkeling and caught several while fishing for mahi and tuna, but they never really gave us any real trouble. They just looked menacing with their sharp teeth showing all the time.

Paul and I liked fishing and our first catch was a 40 pound mahi mahi. We were so excited and hadn't really figured out what we'd do with a fish if we caught one! It was too big for the net and we didn't have a gaff (others kept knocking their fish off the hook with their gaff so it was probably just as well) so we just manhandled it up over the lifelines and into Dog Star's cockpit. This was using handlines only, no fishing rod or reel.

Now, fish bleed when brought aboard. And, Jason and I remember taking a bloodbath from an earlier fish caught a couple of years ago, so we threw everything movable down the companionway into the interior of the boat to keep from getting splattered with blood. The trick used to subdue the big fish is to squirt rum (or any liquor, just that we had lots of cheap rum) into the fish's gills to stop it from thrashing about. It is a happy way for the fish to go and much less violent than clubbing them over the head. Just try to grab a 40 lb. fish by the gills while it's still hooked and whipping about on a wet 4 x 4' floor. Paul, being the purist, thought he had to personally spit the rum into the fish's gills, so his face got really close to the 3 inch hook the fish was caught on. Too dangerous we decided and thereafter employed a little squirt bottle full of rum on our subsequent catches.

Paul filleted one side and I did the other. I use the term "fillet" loosely as neither of us had ever attempted it on such a large fish. We had the theory OK, but putting it into practice on a moving boat was a little tougher than we thought. We stood on the ladder that went down into the interior of the boat (the companionway) so the cockpit floor was about chest high and we could get a grip on the slippery fellow. Someone had brought the deck-wash hose back from the bow and we had someone spraying the blood and guts out of our way as we worked. It was a wet, messy job, but very interesting as we evaluated the internal workings of the big fish. We probably left about a third of the meat on that first attempt, but had it down pat by the end of the trip! We landed four mahi and another boat caught a tuna that fed us (18 sailors) sushi for an evening. Yum yum...can't get any fresher than that! Catching a fish, cleaning the fish, and sailing a 46 foot sailboat all at the same time takes more hands and arms than an octopus can furnish!

We need to learn to tie better fishing knots though, as we lost 6 to 8 of our best new lures when the fish struck and the knots broke loose. Or, we need to seek smaller fish. We actually SAW 2 of the fish hit the lures and jump repeatedly to try to spit out the hooks. One barracuda actually left teeth marks in our cedar plug with a lead front, nasty! That chomp cracked it and it broke in two the next day. It still managed to catch a ton of seaweed, though. Paul and I restocked the lures in the Bahamas, but they all succumbed to knot failure eventually. It's hard to tie knots in 200 pound test line. Back in Beaufort, NC another boat owner (they were from Traverse City, MI, what a small world, eh?) showed us some better ways to tie on the lures, but it was too late to put into practice.

We often sailed at night so we could enjoy the days. And, the moon and stars were always pretty. Having the iPod hooked up to speakers in the cockpit helped the person on watch stay awake during those wee hours of the morning. Hot coffee, tea, chocolate or cider were also a way to stay alert. We didn't really see that many boats, and only one came close enough to Dog Star that we had to change course for it. It really is a big ocean. We often couldn't even see the other boats that we were "sailing with." The Gang of 7 was often a Gang of 1 when off-shore. We just kept in radio contact regularly and showed up in the same places some nights.
All in all, it was a wonderful month spent just tasting the life we want to enjoy. Many islands I'd like to go back to to spend more time in the water and on the beaches. We had to push to get back for a graduation and to satisfy the insurance company that the boat was out of the hurricane zone before the season begins, but there are many places we could spend a lot more time in without much effort.

Sheryl fed us very well and I now have a new tool in my repertoire for cooking, the pressure cooker. We had some awesome meals and Paul even baked bread a couple of times for us. Luckily, living on a boat is like living on a jungle gym, what with all the climbing up and down and all the muscle work of holding on while the boat corkscrews around in the swells. More than once I slept on the floor as my side of the berth was the "high side." When Jason wasn't on his side of the bed, I could sleep on that wall with the boat heeled over, but we both couldn't be there if it wasn't fairly flat (calm waters). This made for interesting sleeping...