Posted on June 8, 2022
Tyrell Bay, Carriacou. 3:16 am
This would have been a night to get some sleep.
The past few days blur in heat and exhaustion, long dusty uncomfortable days trying to get everything ready for a 400-mile sail to Bonaire but not knowing if the weather will shape up to make the passage feasible. As of 3 am it looks good. The wind forecast is between 10-20 knots and waves 4-6 feet, down from 6-8 at one point. Yesterday we picked up our laundry, scoured the town for veggies and fruits, found a few sad potatoes and cucumbers and a small cabbage. We hauled about 360 pounds of water to the boat in 5 gallon jugs, spent hours scraping barnacles from the hull, got Covid tests, checked out with Grenada customs and immigration. Precooked some meals, set up the sails, mapped our route on the charts. We were ready.
In these sleepless hours I recheck the weather and go over our route. I watch the moon light the sky, as it will light the darkest hours of the coming days. I listen to fretful birds nesting nearby, and to our rigging singing along with the gusty wind in a high pitched whine.
I think about that moment when our depth sounder goes from 290 feet to – – –. That’s somewhere beyond 300 feet, how much beyond is practically irrelevant. This passage the depth will fall to almost 10,000 feet. The sounder will read – – –, off soundings.
We put so much trust in this boat, a few centimeters of fiberglass carrying us over water 10,000 feet deep. I didn’t realize how important that trust was two years ago when we left. How it would need to be built passage by passage. How trust in general would shape so much of our experience on this voyage.
Our wake-up alarms clamor. I shut them down quickly so Bill and others in this anchorage can sleep a bit longer. About 4:15am I feel my way through boat shadows to the aft cabin where Bill is sleeping under a ray of moonlight streaming through the deck hatch. I put a hand on his shoulder and he slowly opens his eyes. He remembers where he is, rises with effort. We check the weather one last time. Wind 15-20 knots, waves 4-6 feet. We go.
There are just a few final items on our Anchors Up list: sunscreen, nausea medication, secure compartments below decks, check the bilge. We raise the anchor and drive out beyond the sleeping sailboats to raise the sails in the calm seas of Tyrell Bay. A yellow glow hangs thinly on the eastern horizon.
The downwind sail set-up is new to Maggie May and crew. It’s more complicated than our usual sail plan, the one we’ve used for most of the thousands of upwind miles we’ve traveled, a main sail and genoa. But now, at last we are traveling with the wind. We won’t be using the main sail at all, and will have two sails flying on opposite sides of the bow. This double headsail set-up requires a matrix of lines to keep it in check. The genoa sheet on the starboard side runs through the end of a gib pole affixed to the mast, which is held up parallel to the water by a topping lift line and tensioned forward with a guy line that runs to the bow and then back to the midship cleat where we can adjust it without having to stray too far from the safety of the cockpit. The web of lines crisscrossing the deck looks like a laser alarm system in Mission Impossible. With the genoa thus unfurled on the starboard side we begin setting up a second sail on the port (left) side of the bow, on a wire solent stay just about a foot aft of the genoa. This sail’s sheet is run through the end of the boom, which we have pushed out as far to port as it will go and secured with a line to prevent it from swinging wildly around in a wind shift or big wave.
Bill hauls the second sail up and we trim both sails, then pull the kill switch on the engine, returning quiet to the dawn. An engine extinguished, the world sighs in relief. Light wind pushes gently from the stern, ghosting us out of the bay on a course of 280 degrees, almost due west and dead downwind.
At 3 miles offshore, the sounder falls to infinity —.
Soon the wind picks up and the waves double in size. We are leaving the protection of land behind. But the Atlantic does not quickly forget the abrupt interruption of Carriacou and its mountains upon the water’s westward march. Waves continue arguing over which direction they ought to travel. Pushing and shoving ensues. Their chaos makes for an unpleasant ride on Maggie May, who is attempting to make her way through this unruly crowd. Every wave hits from a slightly different direction and sets Maggie May into a wobbly, jerky roll. Human bodies do not adapt to this ever changing motion. We wedge ourselves tightly against the boat and brace when the bigger waves hit. Bill and I are both wearing a prescription scopolamine patch for seasickness and have taken a ginger pill as well, hopefully it will be enough.
I take first watch, 6 to 9 am. Bill will take over 9-12pm, then me at 12-3, Bill 3-6 and the cycle starts again and rolls on for the next 50 hours or so. The first watch will be easy. Just now the sun becomes visible beyond the mountains of Carriacou behind a thick veil of mist. So dense is this shroud of haze that the sun appears as a yellow wafer in a muted yellow sky above the charcoal outlines of Grenada’s jagged mountain peaks. A painterly sky, emotive and grandiose. A sky under which it feels just fine to be small and filled with awe. To be a brushstroke on a great canvas too immense to behold.
Through my watch, as I fuss the sails and watch the horizon, land recedes into indistinct haze where the lines between sea and sky blur.
I pull the genoa flatter than a downwind course generally wants, hoping to minimize the jerking and loud snapping of the sail when waves disrupt the angle of the wind on the stern. This seems to help. It requires trimming the genoa in, then easing the guy line on the midship starboard cleat so the tension is not too great on the three lines and pole connected to the forward sail. There is much trial and error. If the guy is too tight, it fairly screams with tension. If too loose, the pole bangs against the rigging. Each time I adjust the guy line, I have to clip my inflatable vest harness to a line that runs along the side deck, so that if the boat moves unexpectedly and I lose my balance, I’ll stay attached. Bill is asleep. It’s my job to keep myself on board.
The complicated nature of the double head sail makes me wary of squalls. There is no changing these sails quickly and the setup won’t work if the wind is anywhere but behind us. A squall with shifty wind would require turning off course to find downwind wherever the storm might put it.
I don’t worry overly, a storm seems unlikely. The haze that has subdued the sky for days is very likely a huge cloud of desert dust blown across the Atlantic from the Sahara. This tends to discourage squalls. Around 7:30am clouds begin to gather and darken and I watch for changing weather, but the darkness disbands after dropping a light sprinkling of rain. And throughout my first watch the wind stays almost due east.
At 9:00 Bill climbs into the cockpit to relieve me. I sit with him for a while and then go down below to record my watch log: where we are, how far we traveled, at what speed and in what conditions. It is a log of our journey and the boat’s performance under certain circumstances, but more importantly it’s a trail of breadcrumbs so we can find ourselves upon the globe if ever our instruments fail.
I lay down in the sea berth we have prepared in the main salon. The boat is equipped with lee boards for both of the settees (couches) in the main salon. These boards slot in to notches along the outside of the settees, making a snug little crib for staying put in a rolling sea. But just because you don’t fall out doesn’t mean you can sleep. Every few seconds waves push the boat to starboard, then to port, then starboard, and sometimes hard. The sails loudly protest the ocean’s treatment. This is not an environment I’ll sleep in until I’m good and tired, there will be no banking of sleep for the midnight to 3 am watch. Still it is restful, a time for the body to relax from the constant energy required for staying upright. I lay and let my mind wander for an hour before rejoining Bill in the cockpit.
We sit watching water, endless water. Land is by this point no longer in sight and the waves have begun to agree on a direction of travel, so Maggie May is taking a bit less of a random pounding. Many seabirds, mostly boobys, terns, tropicbirds and gulls, fly near the boat heading north. I wonder if they are headed to the far north for nesting, or just to some good fishing grounds they’ve heard of. The nearest land to the north is Montserrat, 250 miles away.
Isolation sets in as they fly past. There is only silver-blue ocean, thousands of feet deep, and blue-white sky unfathomable. I have to remind myself where I am. Often this is the case when I wake in the morning, having traveled afar in dreams and forgetfulness in the night. In waking life I can usually place myself. But in this scene we could be anywhere, in any ocean where the trade winds harry the sea westward.
During Bill’s 3-6 pm watch the winds accelerate, 15-18 knots. This helps Maggie May move better through the uneven terrain. I make us some bowls of premade potato and pasta salad and we sit with our dinner as the sun sets on our first day.
After I eat, I go below to gather my watch items ( headlamp, first aid kit, nausea medicine, sunscreen, glasses, crackers, etc). Bill calls out “Come up here!” I poke my head up and he points to the ocean. “Look at that huge mat of sargassum! It’s so beautiful in the sunset light.” A copper sheen is on the water under a yellow-orange sky and this island-sized raft of sargassum is undulating upon the shimmering sea. The blur between water and sky offers the eye an illusion, hard to shake: we on this boat, that undulating carpet of sea plant, we are floating weightless, aimless and utterly alone upon an unbroken sunset sky.
We are not truly alone. A universe of life hums beneath this living, breathing carpet. Fish and jellyfish, eggs and larva, millions of bacteria, baby octopuses, schools of small fish, perhaps some hunters following from the darkness below. We humans often make the mistake of believing the illusion, of understanding the world to be the known world, the visible. What we see and understand. It is perhaps more comfortable to believe this pretty lie. But also much lonelier.
I take up watch as the sun slips beyond the horizon and darkness creeps across the sky, making of the seas a churning leaden plain. Gradually, pale stars appear behind the haze. As darkness deepens, the greatest source of light appears in our wake as Maggie May cuts through steely water, creating mounds of white froth filled with thousands of green sparks, bioluminescent bacteria. Fireflies winking on and off, disturbed by the passage of the boat. Stars in the sky, stars in the sea. Those invisible souls you will never see by daylight, though they are always there. Darkness is their time.
Before leaving Carriacou we had decided not to use our running lights and to switch off our AIS transmitter (which normally sends out information about Maggie May to other boats in the vicinity) in order to avoid the attention of pirates. There are several isolated locations in the Caribbean where attacks have occurred, and the north coast of Venezuela is one of those places sailors often avoid. We are more than 70 miles off the mainland coast. An attack is highly unlikely. But before our departure I read a disquieting account of some unusual vessel behavior sailors encountered along this route. As a precaution, we travel in darkness.
At 9:00 pm Bill takes over. I write my watch log and then manage to sleep a bit despite the continuing erratic rocking motion of the boat. When I enter the cockpit at midnight, the world has been brightened by a waning gibbous moon now high in the eastern sky. Stars and bioluminescence have faded under a river of moonlight spreading across the sea. Over the next few hours the river broadens as the moon hikes the sky.
In the north the lights of a ship appear. I find an AIS icon for it on our chart plotter and check its information– a 200-foot vessel headed on a coarse of 135 degrees that will pass within 5 miles of us in 20 minutes. A pirate vessel would not likely be on AIS or so well lit as this ship, not a clever pirate anyway. Still, I keep a close eye on it to make sure it doesn’t change course in our direction. When it has passed on its way southeast I return to watching the moonlight on the water, on the white sails glowing brightly on the dark sea. And I feel suddenly very conspicuous in the moonlight. The same light that had been a comfort for what it allowed my eyes to see is now a concern for what it allows other boats to see. I scan every horizon near and far for the dark outlines of boats. I consider how I would react if another boat did appear. And I breathe deeply to find some calm. So much of the past few years have been geared toward this mastery of self, of fear and anxiety. Sorting out what fears are real, what dangers are actually present, and which are not. The first year on the boat we lived in a perpetual state of hypervigilence, both Bill and I in our own ways always anticipating the next challenge. Gradually that has shifted, with much effort. With many deep breaths.
The fact that we are still on the boat, sailing to Venezuelan islands, the fact that I didn’t wake Bill upon seeing that ship, all of this is testimony to how much we have learned. When Bill comes on watch at 3am I let him know about the ship and then go to log and berth. This time I am tired enough to fully immerse in dreams for most of my time off-watch. When I wake near dawn the wind has increased again, averaging 20 knots and the waves have grown accordingly. The equatorial current pushes us along, adding about a knot of speed. And we are often surfing down the face of waves at 9 knots or more, a giddy speed for a girthy girl like Maggie May.
This is a nice change from clawing our way into the face of the wind over the past few years, but it is speeding our trip so much that we are now ahead of our scheduled landfall in Gran Roque, and will be arriving in the dark hours of the following morning. We make it a rule never to arrive at night if we can avoid it, so we roll up the genoa several turns to slow our speed. This helps but we are are still averaging 7+ knots on my afternoon watch and creating enough of a bow wake that a pod of dolphins takes notice of our swift big-bellied Maggie May and starts weaving back and forth across the front of the boat. They swim with us for 10 minutes before disappearing into the blue.
As wind and waves increase throughout the day and night we reef the genoa more and more until it is little more than a picnic blanket in size. On my midnight watch the moon is bright enough I can see waves rise above the solar panels on the stern, some 7-9 feet above the trough and 3-4 feet above my own head. When we rise onto a wave crest I look down onto the solar panels and the horizon beyond. At times the stern kicks out to the side as we surf down wave faces. I reach the beginning of concern, but we never go near full broadside to the next wave as Maggie May quickly rights herself square with the seas. She has earned much trust over these years.
When Bill comes on watch we discuss the building seas. We are nearing the place where thousands of feet of rolling water hit the shelf of shallow ocean surrounding Los Roques. This is likely to agitate the the already lively seas. We both make a mental note to be prepared, and I go to sleep for a bit. When I return to the cockpit Bill is hand steering to keep the boat squared off with the sea, a somewhat grim look on his face. I recall at once that it is his birthday today, but think maybe now is not the time for cake.
We can see the summit of Gran Roque rising from the water in the near distance, and soon we will reach the more protected waters on the leeward side of the island. But to get there we need to turn southward, and our downwind sail setup won’t work with the wind any further forward. But we also don’t want to go to the bow to untangle the sheets and guy lines and pole while the sea is so rough. So Bill carefully steers along the edge of the sails’ comfort. When they start to complain loudly, thrashing and snapping in their confusion, he turns westward and downwind to appease them. Then he tries to sneak upwind and southward for a bit before being forced to turn downwind again. In this way we sneak into the calmer lee of Gran Roque where we roll up the genoa fully, haul the boom back onto the centerline and then Bill goes forward to wrestle down the second sail and lash it to the deck as the bow bucks up and down and side to side. When he returns to the cockpit he sighs, “That was intense.”
“Happy Birthday!” I say. He smiles tiredly.
We motor the final mile or two in the shadow of of the Great Rock that rises hundreds of feet out of the endless horizon of the Caribbean Sea. Pelicans, terns, gulls and frigate birds patrol the waters, following close behind fishing skiffs on their morning runs. A bold line of turquoise marks the boundary between sandy shallows and the deep. We get our anchor down in the sand and the boat settled and then we both lay down and fall asleep for half an hour. When we wake, it is approaching 9 am and time to check in with Venezuelan customs and immigration. We had planned to stay in the Venezuelan islands for two weeks, the maximum stay allowed by visiting boats. After that we would travel on to Bonaire from the far western Venezuelan island, Sotavento in the island chain of Los Aves. But after a disheartening morning running from office to office and back again, we come to understand that alone among all countries visiting this nation, United States citizens must have a visa. We do not. We will need to pull up anchor and continue on to Bonaire.
This was something we should have known ahead of time. But for the past two years the politics of the United States has been distant, a poison left on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Here in some of the most remote islands in the Caribbean it catches up to us. Trump. Some words to the effect of: I might invade Venezuela. Sanctions. Threats. Posturing. In 2020 a boatful of US men and guns landed on the Venezuelan coast (almost directly south of where we are now), planning to foment an overthrow of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Trump denied official involvement.
We are officially not welcome here and our own government does not want us coming here.
Sadly, it is also one of the loveliest places we have been. A place unique in all our travels. The town of Gran Roque is small, just a few sand streets criss cross a town of brightly painted houses, shops, and restaurants along the coast of a small aquamarine bay. Almost everyone we meet is kind and welcoming, apologetic about the policy that will require our swift departure. We stop for lunch at a seaside restaurant. Bill is glum. “Great birthday,” he mutters. We order some lemonade and a veggie burger and vegan taco, surprised to find these items on the menu. When they arrive I take a bite of the veggie burger and smile big at Bill. “Your birthday is looking up.” I hand it to him, he takes a bite and the same smile spreads across his face. “Impossible.” We have seen very few Impossible burgers in our travels and this is a good if improbable time for one to pop up. The restaurant also has a chocolate torte to round out Bill’s birthday lunch.
After lunch we walk back to the Port Authority to tell one of our new friends Jose that we will be leaving right away by order of customs and immigration. To this he says: “No, that’s not right. You have 72 hours to rest and relax. You cannot travel around the islands but you can provision and rest.” He makes some phone calls, confirms that all the officials are on the same page, and helps us with our paperwork. He tells us he’s sorry we can’t stay, that it is politics, but in his mind, “todos somos hermanos.” We are all brothers.
This makes all the difference. Over the next 24 hours Jose arranges for us to be able to make a rest stop at one of the most beautiful islands in the Los Roques chain, which will aid us on our travel to Bonaire and let us see some of what we came to see.
We go through all the inspections, health checks and paperwork we need, then pull up anchor in Gran Roque with 48 hours left to go on our transit visa, and sail toward Cayo de Agua. This small spit of land is about 15 miles west of Gran Roque and lies on the far western edge of the Los Roques island chain. As we travel we have to pass by many great anchorages we had marked on our charts, including one Bill has dubbed “the greatest anchorage in the Caribbean.” There is a sadness in passing them by unvisited, understanding that this is likely our once-in-a-lifetime sail to Los Roques. We discuss the idea of returning after several months in Bonaire, if we could get the United States to issue a visa, if we could find a perfect weather window where the wind shifted north or south without a major storm. Both highly improbable.
We are drawn by the remoteness, the quiet, the impossible beauty of these waters. Bill says, “I’m glad we learned to read the water in the Bahamas, or this would have been terrifying.” It’s true, we had to go through a process of sailing over water that appeared to be 3-4 feet deep to understand that it was actually 8-10 feet and we could tell by the color. Charts are not reliable in remote places like this, you have to trust your eyes and what you have learned. But beyond the skills we have learned, our comfort and well-being is a matter of perception.
Any adventure is a process of seeing something out ahead of you, something you yearn toward. But inherent in the adventure is uncertainty, a shroud of mystery that prompts fear and anxiety beyond the challenge of the thing itself. The only way you can move forward toward that thing you want, is to take steps toward self-doubt, to walk through the veil of the unknown. To see that —, where depth falls to infinity, where you have no solid footing, and to feel your heart flicker and threaten to fail, yet still to take that next decisive step. It is of course better to do that after you have some foundational skills, but some skills you cannot acquire without first finding the courage to walk blind into the mystery.
I am still uncertain of myself. But I am no longer drowning in self-doubt.
A small pod of dolphins approaches the boat. Many of them are little ones but there is one very large dolphin that comes to the side of the bow and surfaces, then lifts its tail and smacks it hard on the water surface. It does this twice, and the pod swims quickly off.
When we arrive at Cayo de Agua, we decide to anchor on the windward side of the island, tucked behind another small island called Cayo Elbert, which we think will afford us more protection from strong gusty winds. The water shifts quickly from dark royal blue to aquamarine to green-blue, shallower and shallower, we watch the depth sounder obsessively as we ease in as close as we can get to the sandy strip of land. I put the anchor down in 7 feet and when we are snugged up we look around upon a paradise of sunlight caught in white sand and blue green glass. Hundreds of pelicans, boobys, terns, frigate birds and wading birds wander the sand and stone of Cayo Elbert. We lower the dinghy from its stowage place beneath the solar panels and head in toward shore where the birds are congregated. There are the usual seabirds but also black noddy and even a great blue heron. And there are masses of them, fishing in the shallows, resting on the rocks, flying about. Through clear water we watch baby sea turtles darting here and there and fish swimming about the dinghy, schooling away from the pursuit of birds and other fish.
We watch the urgency of it all as the sun goes down and then we open a couple of Venezuelan beers, lounge in the dinghy and float back to the Maggie May. We take our baths in the cockpit as night falls, have some dinner and are asleep by 9pm.
In the morning we discuss our next move. I would like to stay here but we only have 24 hours left on our transit visa. We are supposed to leave the country by tomorrow, May 24. But we don’t have a slip or mooring in Bonaire until June 1 and anchoring is prohibited there. So we might get there and have to continue on to Curacao if we can’t get a space in the marina. We remember two things: 1.) The main halyard (line that hauls up the main sail) is wrapped around the radar reflector near the top of the mast. We have to get up there to unwind it before it rips the reflector off. 2) There is a tropical wave approaching, possibly bringing some foul weather with it. We decide to stay and wait out the weather and fix the halyard.
I haul Bill up the 50-foot-mast and he frees the halyard then we rest from that exertion by lounging about the boat. We do some snorkeling and then spend an hour cleaning the bottom of the boat. The wind stays strong and gusty throughout the day, but no storms arrive. During the night Bill goes on deck and sees lightening in the distance and the following morning dark clouds roll in along the southern horizon. Our transit visa is up today, we need to get to the Coast Guard station at the far western edge of the Venezuelan islands of Los Aves, some 40 miles away and a full day’s sail. But we are wary of leaving under this sky. We watch the clouds for an hour. They are rolling along to the south, along the mainland coast, but don’t seem to be threatening our path westward to Los Aves. We pull up anchor and get sailing toward Sotavento.
The wind is 20-25 knots and we’re making fast miles. After a few hours a ship appears from the east. It’s not on AIS. It is the only boat we’ve seen for more than 24 hours and looks to be a fishing vessel. It is getting nearer, but very gradually. “Why is it going so slow?” I wonder aloud. We watch as it moves closer and closer, three-quarters of a mile, half a mile, one-quarter, on an overtaking course just to port of our stern. Then it points directly to our stern and gradually slightly to starboard. It crosses over behind us, maybe 1000 feet away. Bill and I have been watching it closely, quietly.
“Where is the flare gun?” Bill says. I go to our emergency kit and get the flares and gun, then stop at the navigation table and grab some bear spray I have on board. (Just in case there are bears.) I am sitting there with the spray, Bill is holding the flare gun, when the boat passes behind us and begins to pull slowly ahead. I say, “Well, it looks like they were just changing course to go around us.” Bill responds, “Yes, maybe to be upwind of us, easier to overtake us.” It is odd to travel so close to another boat when there is so much ocean out here. And they were matching our speed, when surely the power boat is capable of a lot faster speeds than a boat sailing 7 knots. Still, the idea of boarding another boat in these rough seas seems crazy, as both boats would be damaged badly.
Our friend Jose in Gran Roque spent 20 years in the navy and he told us that piracy was only an issue along northeastern Venezuela coast, in the seas between Venezuela and Trinidad. The rest of the coast, he told us, is too well patrolled by the coast guard and navy, which are a combined force in Venezuela. This made a lot of sense to me. The reality of piracy in a very limited location has been inflated by stories passing from sailboat to sailboat, (sailors can tell some stories) creating a culture of fear around the entire 500+ miles of the Venezuelan coast and 100 miles offshore. It happens easily. We are vulnerable on so many levels out here. Fears take flight and actions of other boats are interpreted through this lens.
The boat stays a fixture on our starboard side for about 20 minutes and then moves slowly ahead of us toward Barlovento in Los Aves.
“A fishing boat most likely,” Bill says. We put our makeshift arsenal away and continue on.
It is a torture to pass Barlovento, a dream island for us. A bird island, home to thousands according to what we have read. Fish and reefs and birds and nothing else, the surrounding water a blue flame of liquid sunlight. We discuss stopping, but know we need to respect the directions of the Venezuelan authorities.
As we sail onward, a large flock of boobys descends upon the boat. This bird is a strange one. Every time one flies near the cockpit where we are sitting, it peers in, eyes locked in on us for several seconds before continuing on its aerial circuit. Many of them do this, staring at us so intently. What is it they look for? Are they just curious, or trying to ascertain something about us that would be to their advantage. Their faces don’t express curiosity. They have a face something like the plague masks of the 17th century. Not sinister, just blank and probing.
They accompany the boat for 20 minutes, following us west. When they aren’t circling around us they skim along the water surface, sometimes so low their wingtips slice through the churned up sea. This entourage of plague-masked busy bodies gave me joy. Even though we can’t visit Barlovento, some of Barlovento visits us.
By the time we reach Sotavento the sun is deep in the west. The wind bends around the coast and accelerates, whipping the water into a choppy chaos. This anchorage will not be peaceful, but if the coast guard lets us stay, it will be better than continuing on to Bonaire or even Curacao overnight. The coast guard station is a small outpost on a remote strip of sand. Just a few towers and small buildings. We anchor as close to the station as depth will allow, and as it turns out, right behind the only other boat in the anchorage, our pirate pursuers, who have also stopped here for the night.
I hail the coast guard on the VHF and in my best bad Spanish ask if we can stay. I can barely hear the response but understand that they are coming out to inspect us. In a few minutes five men in full military attire circle the Maggie May in their boat, then hand us their lines to tie on our starboard cleats. When they are secured, they wait an awkward moment, then ask if they can come aboard. I think in that moment I was supposed to invite them but I missed this cue while trying to think of useful Spanish words. The Comandante of the base speaks English well, though I do my best to speak Spanish back to him. I’m not sure if this is a kindness given how I butcher the language, but he seems to understand me and it feels important to make the effort. One of the officers comes below with Bill and I and gives Maggie May a thorough search inside and out, picking up cushions and opening storage compartments, enough to be certain we are not smuggling anything. Both he and the Comandante are polite, professional and efficient. Much of my recent life experience with law enforcement has been with US Border Patrol, so I am pleasantly surprised by the lack of aggressiveness.
The Comandante gives us leave to spend the night. We are grateful for this reprieve from the rough waters and strong wind. After they leave, we eat some leftovers and go to sleep.
At first light we are anchors up and on our way.
The final 30 miles to Bonaire goes by quickly. When the towers on the southern lowlands of the island become visible, an exhausted euphoria begins to set in. It is still setting in. I had no hope we would reach this island a year ago. Bill had been ready to go home, too exhausted by disappointment after disappointment early on in the trip. I wanted, needed, to continue. I said to him, “Please, just get to Bonaire with me.”
It took us another year, but we made it.
Posted on September 6, 2021
Had the Atlantic trade winds been westerly, we would be living in a very different world. These relentless winds blowing ever from the east facilitated the conquest and colonization of the Western Hemisphere; they made and unmade kings.
And they make beggars of all who choose to sail against them. We become thieves in the night.
It was a moonless night when we stole away from Luperon. Despite our best intentions. Our plan had been to find a window of time under a gibbous moon when the trade winds were disrupted by an intervening weather feature—a trough, a stalled front, a tropical cyclone that had already passed us by. But this did not come to pass.
As the third-quarter moon began to wane, we had decided to settle back in and wait until the September moon began to wax toward full. But then chance brought us something we’d never hoped for: a solid 3-day forecast of 5 knot winds for most of the Southwest North Atlantic. 5 knots! This might turn into 10 knots along the north coast of Hispaniola, and if so, we could sail by day and motor-sail (hybrid of sailing-motoring) through the night. It was too good to be true, we had to take it.
For months, Bill and I had sketched out our departure from Luperon on the Dominican Republic’s north coast. If we had been headed west or north, we could have planned our next sail over a few days time. But sailing east to Samana Bay meant that we would either be zigzagging for 40+ hours, clawing our way against 25-30 knot East winds and their associated wave patterns; or we would be motoring and motor-sailing at night with almost no wind, and hiding out during the daylight hours—when the trade winds gang up with sea breezes and coastal acceleration to create one of the thorniest passages along the Thorny Path from the Bahamas to the Lesser Antilles. Bill and I calculated that over the first year of our adventure we sailed against the wind about 90 percent of the time. It was hard on the boat, hard on us. And there was really no end in sight until we reached the Virgin Islands and could turn southward.
We opted for the light-wind night passage. Upon our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we purchased the bible for this route, The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant. Van Sant spent 20 years sailing the route between Florida and the north coast of South America, via the eastern Caribbean. Over that time he became one of the crustiest salts in the sailing world, a fellow who hates “No Smoking” and “No Fishing” signs almost as much as he dislikes sailing to windward. He is also likely the most knowledgeable person out there about how to safely sneak east against the trade winds.
The Gentleman’s Guide has a title that sounds like it was published in the 1950s, rather than 2012, but still, when the derivation is explained by Van Sant, it strikes me as jolly good fun,( despite the years of jolly annoyance I’ve had over sexism in the sailing world). There was an old sailing adage, something to the effect of, “A gentleman never sails to windward.” Thus a gentleman would never voyage from the United States East Coast to the Caribbean, because it cannot be done without doing some of the least gentlemanly sailing in the world. Sailing to windward is a sometimes brutal sport, sailing off the wind is a genteel pastime.
I myself, prefer genteel pastimes and while I enjoy an hour or two of beating into the wind, I am apparently a bit of a gentleman. So I was keen to learn all Van Sant had to teach. I read and reread the book, as did Bill, while we were moored in Luperon hiding out from the epic progression of tropical storms that 2021 has been.
When this rare window of calm appeared, we began to ready ourselves, scraping the barnacles off all of our bottoms; weaving through the beauraucracy regulating travel by boat within the Dominican Republic; checking, rechecking, re-rechecking the weather forecasts. Finally, at midnight, the last Monday in August, when the wind had eased for the day and we expected a meager waning moon to soon crest the eastern hilltop, Bill climbed up on the mast, hooked on the mainsail halyard, and I prepared to cast us off the mooring by the light of a spotlight.
As I walked the lines aft and made sure they were clear of our propeller, I noticed why we hadn’t yet seen the tardy moonrise–the moon was already up, but obscured by a thick fog, the mist of which rushed through the spotlight beam like a billion tiny insects. I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of us. Had Luperon harbor had more of a strait forward entrance this would not have been a problem, but this bay’s entrance is shaped by shallow rocks and muddy shoals that make for a narrow channel that resembles a dogleg, broken and mended badly several times. There are markers, but they are not lighted and give little hint as to their colors in the dark. I went to the bow and tried to serve as eyes for Bill as he steered and consulted the chart.
“Ok, you’ve got a green to starboard and red to port. Then there’s a…I think that’s green, god, its really hard to say.” Bill replied through the dark, “Chart says it should be green.” (For those unfamiliar with boating aids to navigation, green marks the rightmost extent of the channel, often a shoal-line, when leaving a port. You don’t want to mistake red for green.)
And so it went as we groped along in the thick dark mist at 2 knots, figuring if we hit anything, we wouldn’t hit too hard. I could see fish swimming and leaping in the beam of the spotlight, an octopus legged languidly past the bow, headed toward Luperon, barely giving us a second glance, though its hard to tell with octopi. Occasionally the light would fall on a float for a fishing net and I’d alert Bill, or cliff face some 50 feet away. Then all would fade from view as I scanned the dark for clues to the deeper water.
After 15 tense minutes and 8 bouys passed, I couldn’t see any more channel markers. Standing on the bow I also couldn’t see the chart so I asked Bill, “Are we out?”
“We’re out,” he said.
I gave the water a few more scans for fishing floats, then went back to help Bill raise the mainsail.
As Maggie May made her way through the dark world we took turns at the helm, keeping the boat on coarse and watching the lights of Puerto Plata, Sosua and Cabarete fall behind us. The winds were light, so light that there was almost no wave action aside from an easterly swell—the ocean’s long memory of a wind somewhere, sometime. But we were able to keep the mainsail filled to take some strain off the engine and save a little fuel.
I hadn’t slept well for days before our departure, so Bill took first watch while I lay in the cockpit with my head near his lap, him stroking my hair, me looking up at the moon which was now clear of mist and accompanied by Orion striding purposefully toward the southeast. At 4:00am I took over the helm, just as Canus Major was following Orion into the sky. Bill rested beside me while I watched the dark horizon, only a pale reflection of moonlight and starlight ruffling the cloak of night.
I generally have no trouble staying awake on these passages, but before long, a powerful fatigue overtook me. My eyes began to cross, exhausted from the effort of holding their lids open. I pulled at my hair to stay alert. Ate some M&Ms one…by…one. Stuck my face out of the cockpit to get some air. It was then I noticed a dark line on the horizon in front of us, drawing ever nearer. Could be a trick of light, a huge trick of light. There is no land out here…is there? A rogue wave, the size impossible to tell in the darkness? How close is it? I didn’t want to wake Bill, but didn’t trust myself to decipher danger from hallucination, “Bill, uh Bill, there’s something on the horizon.” He jumped up like a piece of toast shot out of a toaster. “Wha! Whas going on?!”
“Do you see that?” He turned and then scrambled behind the wheel and flipped the boat around faster than I have ever seen it done.
Now facing the opposite direction, we both stared at the dark line, which began to resolve itself in the water.
“I don’t think it’s anything,” Bill said slowly, not entirely sure. “It must be just a giant matte of sargassum catching the moonlight in a weird way,” he said, turning the boat back the way we were going.
“Could be the garbage belt,” I said, referring to the line of garbage that follows currents around islands, 2-5 miles offshore. The garbage can come from all over the Atlantic. And it can destroy boats.
“Yeah, could be. Let’s head closer in toward shore.”
Back at the wheel, I steered us closer to the coast and Bill sat back down and began to nestle in to his pillow. He stopped and said “Are you ok? Do you feel sharp?”
“No,” just being honest. “But the sun will be up soon. I’ll be fine.” He went back to sleep. I didn’t tell him until later that I had been hearing music in the engine noise, first violins, then an angelic choir, then death metal.
A dusty pink dawn perked me up for a while, and I watched the coast roll by, along with patch after patch of sunrise-rose tinged sargassum. I shook my fist at it for making a fool of me.
The presence of this brown floating seaweed has been increasing over the past decade, significantly. Many places in the Caribbean, so dependent on tourism dollars, have named it a public enemy and much effort now goes toward controlling it, or desperately trying. Scientists are not yet certain what is causing the expansion of the plant’s range. It is almost certainly something humans have set in motion, either through climate change or increasing nutrients in the ocean from agricultural runoff. Sargassum provides important habitat for fish, sea turtles and other ocean organisms. But it can also be a hazard when it stacks up meters thick and miles wide and animals become trapped in it. But it is a force all its own, one of those immense mysteries we have yet to unravel, but you can be sure that when we do, we ourselves will be at the bottom of it.
I mused on this idea for a while as I watched flying fish dart by the dozens in front of the boat, etching 30-foot-long criss-crossed trails of disturbance in the glassy ocean. An hour later I woke Bill, handed over the wheel, and then crashed upon the couch belowdecks.
We spent the day making good, easy progress east, while passing by some of the most notorious locations on the coast of the Dominican Republic, including Puerto Malo (bad port), Punta Mala (bad point), and Cabo Cabron, or Cape Asshole, where we would snuggle in and anchor for the night. We had thought to keep going straight to Samana, uncertain whether we could trust the weather forecast. But the ocean was so placid, and I told Bill about my hearing music in the engine’s drone, and we really wanted to see the anchorage at El Valle, reported to be gorgeous.
In truth it was one of the most breathtaking anchorages Maggie May has ever, or perhaps will ever, visit. We dropped the anchor in late afternoon in the small nook where Cape Asshole meets the Dominican Republic’s mainland coast. The cape and mainland rise 1000 feet in mounded hills and sheer cliff walls where palm trees by the thousands cling improbably and birds soar on thermals flowing off the hillsides.
Once we were secure, I sat in the shade and watched a pelican dive for fish along the rugged coast. He wasn’t very good at it, but was fun to watch. The bird kept at it, over and over until he got some dinner, which gave me a sense of satisfaction for him. Bill had jumped in the water to cool off and check the propeller and engine water intake, which as suspected were partially clogged and crusted with barnys and other stowaways. When he climbed out a jellyfish tried to come along on his forearm and left some nasty tentacles behind. He brushed them off, but not before they left a nasty mark, as if someone had dribbled acid along his arm.
We made some dinner, watched the sun settle beyond the western wall of our anchorage, then lay down, hoping to get a few hours sleep before a late night departure. My alarm went off at 3:00am and we set about prepping the boat as tree frogs sang through the deep darkness all around. I pulled up the anchor and Bill drove us northward in the night stillness along the coast of Cabo Cabron.
The Van Sant method of transiting this coast uses what is known as the night lee to creep eastward. The night lee only works well when the trade winds are relatively light, 10-15 knots, and blowing from south of east, which happens somewhat infrequently. When it does, the sea breeze that accelerates the trades in the daytime, reverses to a gentle land breeze flowing off the mountains. This land breeze blows in opposition to the trades, gentling them and even changing their angle from east to southeast or even south. To take advantage of this, one has to follow the coastline closely, sometimes frighteningly close, within a few hundred yards, where a sudden strong shift in the wind or waves to northward could prove disastrous. Because Bill and I found a window where the daytime wind was going to so very, strangely light, less than 5 knots, we didn’t need to follow Van Sant’s method precisely, and could gain some distance from the rocky coast. But because we had the luxury of calm seas, we stayed close enough to Hispaniola that we could feel the power of this land and seascape.
As we rounded Cabo Cabron light began to glow on water and sky, giving a pale silhouette to Cabo Samana, the last cape would would pass before heading south and then west into the bay of Samana. Here the water was filled with sargassum, in places it flowed with unseen currents, elsewhere it lounged about as immense islands, hundreds of feet across. Some we tried to avoid, but others we motored through. Looking back behind us, I could see a clear water trail where the boat had passed through the sea vegetation.
But as we approached Cabo Samana a few hours later, our speed inexplicably decreased by several knots. At first we figured it was a counter current that would ease when we rounded the cape, but it only got worse. When we were down to 3.8 knots Bill got worried. We tried tacking back and forth on sail alone for an hour, but we were getting nowhere because what wind there was, came directly from our destination. So we crept along under engine power until we could round Punta Balandra, enter Samana bay and anchor behind Cayo Levantado. Once anchored I dove down and found the prop entwined in pieces of sargassum. I cleaned it off, hopped back on board, and we got underway the last few miles to the Puerto Bahia marina, having regained most of our speed.
As we tied up at the marina, the first marina we have visited for six months, we looked forward to some real rest and the first real showers we had had in a month. We’ll stay at this marina while we sort out our Dominican Republic boat permits and do a few repairs, then will head out to one of our long awaited adventures, a trip to Los Haitises National Park!
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, animals, beauty, biodiversity, boat, Caribbean, Dominican Republic, dream, environment, environmental, fauna, flora, international league of conservation photographers, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, national parks, nature, ocean, passage, photography, sailboat, sailing, samana, sargassum, sv maggie may, wild, wildlife, Writing