Thursday, August 1, 2019

The one percent - storms and sentiment

We pulled over for the night at a random little town on the Intracoastal waterway in Florida for the night. Checked ‘Accuweather’ which is a clever little play on the word accurate. Hah. They reckoned we had between 1 and 7 percent chance of rain for the eve, overnight and morning. Pretty good odds for a dry peaceful night!
The eleven p.m. deluge was ok, didn’t last long and cleaned the boat. Right? Ok, so they got that one wrong.
At 6 am as I stood looking out at the dark grey angry mix of clouds and ocean, not able to see land, cringing at the incessant lightning bolts attacking the water surface, thunder assaulting my ears, rain rivaling the days of Noah… I was happy we were relatively safe in our little ‘ark’. I realised we must be that one percent!
And then, just like that, nature swung it all around and sucked it all away, and the morning sun poured in. Pours in now. In fact, I have to try to find a tiny corner in the boat where I can stop squinting and see my screen. It’s a life of extremes. In weather, in experiences, in emotions.
On the upside, we discovered a cute little town called Melbourne Beach that we had never stopped at before. Walked to the beach, found a family run grocery store that had wine tasting – hello! We liked that store a lot. 

Yesterday we were in a town further south. Tonight we will be in a town further north. Precisely 18 miles further north. We are not moving quickly. That’s not what ICW (Intracoastal waterway) travel is all about. The moving, the trawling (because it’s definitely NOT sailing!) is actually quite boring. Navigate a very narrow channel through a wide expanse of shallows, lined with mansions, shacks, trailer parks. The water is brown. But it’s full of dolphins and fish and crabs and shrimps and pelicans duck and dive around us. They provide the entertainment for the trip.

What the Intracoastal waterway provides, is the chance to peek into all the little towns that line the shores. 

It’s an open ended adventure. We accept the challenge. It’s been a while. Haven’t been on these waters in three years! Last year Shiloh waited patiently for us in the Bahamas, the year before that we also kept her in Georgetown in the hurricane season and missed this part of the yearly migration.
We should be up in St Augustine in a couple weeks. Shiloh needs a good bottom cleaning and some systems checked. So we will haul her out and leave her on stilts for a few months, fingers crossed there will be no major hurricanes. In the meantime, we seem to be the only cruisers left out on the water. All the boats are tucked up into marinas, clinging to that false security of ‘protection’ from the storms. We all know there is really no such thing. When a hurricane comes barreling at you, there is no prep that is going to save you. It’s a sobering thought. When Irma hit the BVI’s in 2017, the massive fleet of Moorings boats had been tied up and stored with meticulous attention to detail and safety. In the aftermath of Irma, the photos showed chaos, carnage. Boats strung across the island, crushed, shattered, sunk, upside down on hills…they lost 95% of their fleet.

Right, so this is fun! No really, it is. Boat life in this part of the world does carry with it some serious risks, but nothing good in life ever comes without risk.
Boat life has been so much more than the storms and risky endeavours. It has opened up a world of opportunity to meet and embrace the most amazing people. Literally. We have made so many friends who are family. Friends from everywhere who we meet anywhere and pick up where we left off.
We've traded the remoteness and turquoise waters of the Bahamas for Walmarts and FM radio stations and cheap gas. But this trip up the ICW is full of reunions and meet ups and catch ups and it is the gel that pulls together everything we do, and why we do it. Boating has brought us a richer life with a tapestry of people that have forever changed and enriched us.
Maybe in terms of luck, we really are ARE the one percent!

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Bahamas beyond the brochures

We were the only boaters in Fox Town yesterday. The only visitors in fact. We nearly outnumbered the locals in Fox Town yesterday.

This is our seventh month in the Bahamas. The cruising season ended nearly two months ago. In droves, they hoisted sails and headed south to the relative safety of Grenada or north to the marinas and boatyards of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas as the hurricane season approached and insurance companies demanded.

The tourist season in the Abacos ended just over a week ago with a bang. The annual Cheeseburger in Paradise party, on the tiny sliver of land called Fiddle Cay, overrun by vendors and signs and t-shirts and caps and winding lines for free burgers, hot dogs, margaritas, beers, rum etc etc etc… with the bikini clad model types writhing to trap rap aboard the slew of rafted Trump-flag-waving candy coloured speedboats with matching hunks of glistening horsepower. Giant blow up unicorns and pink flamingos and blow up dolls literally, are spotted across the water. Bodies meander, gyrate, fluorescent plastic cups overflow with libation to the gods of excess and indulgence…  This spectacle of a party is unmatched in the Bahamas and no doubt far beyond. 

It is everything that Fox Town is not. We are less than 15 miles and a week away, and we are in another world. The small town life of the real Bahamas. Minus the American glitz and glamour. There are no looming buildings of Atlantis hanging over us here.

Just a couple of 10 year old local boys with dusty scratched knees and a bucket of stinking conch chunks and a fishing line, standing on the end of a dock with a friendly hello. They’ve caught three mutton snappers. Two tiny ones and a decent sized one too. That will be supper for the family. It’s enough.

A walk down the main and only street of Fox Town reveals what many small towns here do – of the 20 or so buildings, many boarded up, at least three are churches. And they are in the best shape. A recent paint job, a welcoming sign. It’s the hope that keeps the few remaining residents around.

The residents are industrious. What looks like a gas station, promising us a refill of diesel for our jugs, turns out to be everything but. The diesel hose, like a dead snake, lies curled on the ground, unused, with it’s fate unknown. They don’t have the ‘Take Away’ food promised on the sign in the yard either. However the shop inside has a working fridge with cold drinks and beers, melted chocolate bars, a 20 lb jar of pickles… in the other half of the shop, Nautica brand clothing and some seriously un-church-like ladies outfits. When I turn around in the tight space, I’m greeted by a barber’s chair complete with a full price list on the wall. A hair salon too!!! Too bad about the diesel though…

The residents are friendly. Genuinely. Out front of the non-diesel-carrying gas station we meet the son of the proprietor. He says, ‘let me make a call’. A few minutes later we’ve handed over our empty jugs and some cash and he disappears down the road in his old red pick up.

We are not worried in the least. We’ve forgotten to get his name but we know where he lives!

An hour later we are at Da Valley – Fox Town’s claim to fame – the only restaurant here. It’s known in cruising and local circles for it’s cracked conch. Not for it’s décor. We are sipping cold beers and eating burgers and such when who should appear but red pick up man with diesel filled and here. 

This is the real Bahamas. It’s nothing like the brochures. It’s definitely not what friends and family imagine when we say we are ‘living on our boat in the Bahamas’. There is zero glamour here. No tourism, no beach, no umbrellas in the cocktails. No cruise ships dock here. But it’s where Bahamians come from. It’s where they are ferried home to after a hard day’s work at a tourist resort, watching the revelers frolick on the best beaches and eating the most expensive lobster dishes. This is home.

For us it’s a lesson in contrast. In humility. It allows us a glimpse of life beyond the brochure.

We feel the contrast too in our small way. Looked for a vegetable or two, just to tide us over the couple weeks before we sail back to the land of plenty. Only one working store here. She had a box of non-rotting tomatoes. That was it. Perhaps an onion or two. It’ll have to do. We will have to open cans of mushy over salted vegetable remnants. But we can leave. We can move, we can experience it all. From Fox Town to Atlantis to nature’s wonders like Conception Island. We get to experience the whole Bahamas. And here, anchored off quiet Fox Town, there is plenty of time to contemplate our luck. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

About the abyss: escaping by sea

4000 meters of ocean below, it hosts us, holds us above it’s deep indigo mystery. It is majestic, omnipotent.
4000 meters of deadly abyss, it would swallow us, carry us lifeless to it’s depths without a boat, without this floating mass of fiberglass and wood and metal we call home.
These are the random thoughts that capture my mind and soul as we are pulled along by rumbling motors and the breath of wind in our sails. It will take approximately 14 hours, out here in these deep ocean waters, to cover the 80 miles between Nassau and the Abacos islands.
It’s always a humbling experience, which is why whenever we arrive at a new destination after a day long sail, we sit quietly, usually with a whisky in the sunset, marveling, celebrating, appreciating our successful passage. 

It is literally a freedom one cannot feel on a day to day basis when we are surrounded by land and it’s inherent anchors – trees and buildings and people and society. It is none of those things. It has only sky above and ocean below. Seems a simple obvious, but on a day at sea it is profound.
If you choose, then there is music as well. And it is one of societies’ offerings that is at home on the sea. Music can put you at one with the universe. It can help you transcend the fiberglass vessel and all the things that could go wrong, and just how vulnerable you are. It carries you right out there into the freedom that is travelling by sea. 

So here I am, the sea surface is as calm as glass, while the sky wakes up for the day in the most magnificent way. Black gives way to muted purples, that give way to candy pinks and citrus orange as the sun peeks up into view. I am dancing like no one is watching – which thankfully no one is! I’m out in the cockpit at sunrise, with my music, my freedom, my bliss. 

A day ago, we awoke anchored in the middle of it all - Atlantis to one side, city bridges crawling with cars and massive tanker ships lined up on the other. 

Hemmed in to the west by the rotating monstrosities called cruise liners. 

We left our rocking boat, pushed around by all the boat wakes and headed to shore. We trudged through the sweltering wind-less, sidewalk-free perilous streets of Nassau, in search of groceries. Dust swirled and clung to our sweat as cars flew past. We held our breath in the litter covered few inches of grassy gutter that kept us from becoming casualties of fuel and metal.
We made our way through the artificially bright aisles of the big store, choosing overpriced produce and tempting ourselves with American offerings. All the while anticipating the hot, fast cab ride back to the jetty, followed by the transferring of bags into the dinghy, zipping across the wild Nassau Harbour, criss crossed by hundreds of tour boats, fishing boats, tankers etc., up into the boat, and ultimately the quest to find enough space to stuff it all. Sweat and dirt featured high yesterday. Car horns, sirens, industrial cranes, litter… all of that surrounded us. Held us in the fist of society.
Today we escaped. Snuck out before dawn, watched the decadent lights of Atlantis shrink into the distance as freedom took over and the day unfolded like a new life.  

Funny how I discovered that having no ground at all in sight, makes me feel more grounded than ever before.
 But today is another day. Another side of cruising life. We've met up with three other boats we last saw in Georgetown. Reunions. Adventures. We've arrived in the Abacos at Regatta time, so the parties begin... 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Flip Side of our Holiday Life: Storms in Paradise

The first sloppy drops of rain hit my face about 1:15am. Close the hatch. An hour earlier we were headed to bed after some hours of mindless TV shows. I noticed lightening illuminating the clouds in the far distance. Not so unusual, but my instinct said “Bring in the cushions, clothes and towels strewn around the cockpit”. I had ignored it. Which meant I had to drag my groggy butt up to go do it now, in the event the rain got a bit heavier. I was lazy, annoyed at being woken, and hoping at least we’d gather some rain water.
“Hahaha!” said the weather gods. “You fool! You have no clue what I’m about to unleash!”. In that moment we were oblivious. We had absolutely no idea how intense things were about to get.
The wind picked up to an eerie howl and with it the sea gathered strength. We and three friend cat(amaran)s, more like sitting ducks anchored on the west side of the world famous Thunderball Grotto, a few hundred metres off Staniel Cay Yacht Club with it’s megayachts lined up on the docks. The wind was coming from the west. Open sea for miles. Open opportunity for nature to create Moby Dick sized ocean waves. And over the next 30 minutes that is exactly what happened. Shiloh bucked and jolted with each growing swell and things in the boat protested. Her walls creaked and groaned with the strain. Bottles and photos and glasses flew about. JW and I stood, holding on, peering out the sliding glass door into the cockpit and at the growing mayhem beyond. Rain pelted down, thunder clapped and the lightening strikes created flashes of daylight in the anchorage. We put the engines on but just couldn’t imagine heading out there to deal with what may come. We’d surely be thrown overboard!

I literally could not believe our anchor could hold us. The dinghy flew up to great heights behind us in the wild waves, and thudded back down, over and over. It was literally unbelievable. It looked as if it would flip with each sequence. We radio’d the friend boats. No one could offer much solace. We all huddled in our respective little vessels, praying in our own ways that this would stop. Nausea overtook my adrenaline at one stage and I fought the urge to hurl my protest into the ocean as well.  

“Let’s go sailing!” we said… “It’ll be fun!” we said….
“It’s a holiday life!” they say! Except when it’s not.
Also, having sailed in the Caribbean and the Bahamas for seven years we know that the wind mostly never comes from the west. Except when it does.
I knew it was really serious when, through the mist and pelting rain I could see the 150 ft megayachts bouncing about on the docks.
And then just like that, two hours later, the storm moved away. But it refused to take it’s bratty stepchild, the incessant swell, with it. We were left with the bitter aftermath. Discovering a couple of the boats had snapped bridle lines, our dinghy fuel tank had flipped and spilled it’s greasy contents into the dinghy, creating a bouncy soup of flip flops, oars and sopped oily rags… our water catcher jug – remember that?! It had been my only hope from the storm as it arrived. Yeah, well, it had been thrown overboard and managed to gulp up a load of sea water. Sigh… we hauled it back onboard and hauled our weary selves to bed.
But it wasn’t to be. “No!” said those pesky weather gods. “You didn’t want to sleep did you?! I have other ideas! You can levitate off your pillows for the rest of the night and swear under your breath as you watch the sun come up over the hatch.”
And the weather gods won. This morning we heard that other had faced a much worse fate than us from that evil storm. A mile away at Big Majors Cay – where the swimming pigs live! – boats were dragging and crashing into each other and the beach. Today’s damage count will be high. But there are more of the same expected for tonight. We need a safer anchorage. So we are on the hunt.
The ‘holiday’ plans of drinking peanut coladas on the Yacht Club patio will have to wait…

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Mutton, rail meat, Georgetown Beat!

We are eating out of Styrofoam in a shack. It’s a green shack and we’re eating mutton.
It’s a slapdash shack in a makeshift row of candy coloured structures, plucked together over the course of a few days. Wires and cables snake the ground around us and an open faced fan with exposed blades, throws warm dusty air at us. We are lined up against the wall with our tiny plastic forks, futilely spooning rice. The sticky plastic table cloth hosts a number of hot sauces and luke warm cream based salad dressings despite the lack of salad on the menu. There are the usual Bahamian offerings of barbecue ribs and chicken and mutton with peas and rice and macaroni and cheese and plantain. It’s all finger-lickin’-good. And it all goes to the hips. There must be 50 makeshift bars offering rum punches, sky juice (a trendy local gloopy white concoction of gin, sweetened condensed milk and coconut milk), and the local beers – Sands and Kalik, on special.

Over our heads, the local banter reaches epic volumes. It’s a ‘cacophonous symphony’ of shouts and laughter, knee slaps and hollers.
On another level, the base from competing sound systems lifts the floorboards to the incessant beat. Rake n' scrape, the local music pumps out hits like 'All Da Meat', 'Roach on My Bread', 'Bush Mechanic', 'That Ain't No Mosquito Bite' and more...
It’s hot and our clay-dust flip flopped feet have carried us around the tiny town, which is abuzz for the week. It’s the 66th Annual National Family Island Regatta in Georgetown. Big words for a set of boat races in the harbour. The wooden boats with their giant sails, have been made across the small islands of the Bahamas for generations. Communities across the nation have been preparing and perfecting their vessels and crew since last year’s race. The boat names and their colours are amazing. Barbarians, Confusion, Beerly Legal, I’ve Tried, Ruff Justice, New Slaughter, Termite… etc. all out there, sails puffed, ‘rail meat’ out on the boards, representing their islands!

And we are here, eating steamed mutton in a shack. We will head out to one of the many race viewing vantage points, once our bellies are full, to watch the spectacle unfold. To the untrained eye, it’s organized chaos. With a breathtaking turquoise backdrop.

In the evenings there will be marching bands and fashion shows; the finest and most bizarre come out and flaunt what their mama gave them. There are literally all shapes and sizes, dressed in every colour, material and style imaginable. And some unimaginable. 

There will be music pulsing from giant black speakers piled high, and the partying will continue literally until the sun comes up. Oh, and I’ll be part of that! Lying in bed, facing the music with my 33 decibel industrial grade ear plugs. Zzzzzz.
This is a big event for Georgetown and the ‘out islands’ as they’re called. And we are here. Loving every minute of it. And slurping our mutton bones gleefully.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Ragged Islands: water water everywhere...

Alan is a pretzel. Literally. Knees hug ruddy cheeks; arms twist above and below. He has worked his way down into the awkward cavity at the back of the boat; a salty pretzel with a wrench. The metal steering tiller arm threatens to behead him as he’s jostled about by the waves below.

Shiloh bucks and jolts in tune with the building seas. The wind is picking up which  was not forecast. Surprise surprise. We are anchored in 8 ft of water over the Exuma banks and land is miles away in every direction. We have come through Hog Cay’s narrow channel at high tide and the next island to find protection is over 30 miles away. In sailboat terms, that’s a lot of hours away.
Night is approaching and we are frantic. On anchoring, we discovered our floorboards floating in the port hull. 

With bulging eyes and sinking stomachs we exchange anxious glances. ‘Are we sinking?!!!’, is what we ask without asking. I stick my finger into the greasy sloshing liquid and realise it’s fresh water. Phew! But wait, this means our entire water tanks have emptied into the dirty bilges. Irretrievable. I want to cry.
A day before, we’d negotiated the tedious tying up at Exuma yacht club and spent an hour or two filling the tanks to the brim for our adventure in the land of remoteness…. $50 later, we left, tanks full, hearts happy and excited.
Now, as the water slapped back and forth with the bouncing of the boat, our hearts, if not our boat, have sunk.
The next 4 hours grind by in a sweaty frenzy, JW and Al pumping the lot of it out into the ocean and running tests with our remaining portable water jugs to locate the cause/leak. 

Our queasy guest downs a Gravol and slinks into a cabin into a comatose state to avoid the drama.
By dark, the lot of us feeling green and gutted; the guys have discovered the culprit. An old shower pipe on the ‘sugar scoop’ (back step) had burst and triggered the water pump. It had dutifully pumped the tanks dry. Sigh.
Well, we have to go back to Georgetown! How will we manage 3 weeks in the Raggeds without a drop of water?!
Alan the ultimate optimist jumps up, unfolded from his yogic position and protests. We do have watermakers. Between our two boats, we will make jugs and fill a tank just enough to give us three quick showers and a sink of dishwashing water a day. So hesitantly we agree, and try to regain our enthusiasm. But clearly this is not a good start.
The official Explorer Guides (many cruisers’ bibles for sailing) describe where we are headed as follows:
“This is unpopulated wilderness… You must be totally self-sufficient here…there is a palpable sense of remoteness… we do not encourage casual visiting… there are no marinas, no Search and Rescue help, no fuel, no water… you are on your own here.”
Sleep comes clawing and drags us under, despite the fact the wind has decided to hand us a further warning. It’s howling and kicking up the shallow waters around us, creating a wild vast washing machine as our night’s shelter.
Two days later, we are sitting on a beach, drinks in hand, snacks set up on a ragged piece of wood, chatting with the crew of two other catamarans we found as we sailed around the top of Flamingo Cay. Seems cruiser life as usual. Normal but for the constant drone of the watermaker motor, sucking in that sea water and miraculously churning out trickles of water we can use! Jugs are lugged up and down the stairs, keeping our tanks just full enough…
Fast forward one more day. The watermaker has died. And we are one further island down into the heart of the Ragged Islands. The area where ‘you are on your own, no help, no water, no marinas etc…. Again those exchanged looks of panic and some added frustration. Sod’s Law applies double fold in remote areas. We are not Robinson Crusoe and this issue needs fixing fast.
6 hours later, sweat, blood, chunks of metal rearranged, hammers, wrenches, rust flakes… the watermaker, having been dislodged from it’s cupboard below and brought out into the light, lies exposed on our cockpit table. A casualty of time and salt air. The prognosis is iffy. 

Alan zooms away in his dinghy with the cracked brushes (an essential motor part), and an idea. And we wait. And in the meantime he carries jugs and jugs of water from his boat to ours. Thanks goodness for buddy-boaters. And best friends. The Raggeds would otherwise have defeated us as the ‘holy’ book predicted.
We try to carry on with the business of enjoying the clear blue waters and white sand beaches while the patient lies like a rusty elephant on it’s makeshift hospital gurney. We cover him in old sheets for the night and hope for the best for the next day.

And doctor Al comes through first thing, sun shining extra bright, the water a blue shade of turquoise… with a home glued potentially life-renewing part!!!! 

After two more hours of surgery the patient is returned to his working compartment and the moment of truth… the on button. IT WORKS!!!!!! It works! Phew. It keeps working. Which means we can keep going. So after some cups of tea for the doc and pouring some libations to the gods of remote boat life… we are off.