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 March 3, 2022
About midway down the western edge of Guadeloupe there is a small bay where the town of Bouillante nestles within the foothills of towering green peaks. Here most of the population speaks French, the air smells strongly of sulfur, and every day, for most of the daylight hours and long into the night, the community gathers in water that pours first out of the mountain in boiling fits, then through a geothermal plant, and finally out of a channel into this bay on the ocean.
It is a lovely scene, the islanders at their ease with neighbors and friends and a few tourists as the sun comes up and passes in and out of the clouds that gather always over these volcanic peaks, and finally settles down over the Caribbean Sea at day’s end. I have felt something here I haven’t felt since the Dominican Republic, a feeling of community, a feeling of home. I am just a bystander, but I feel it in my bones and my mind goes wandering back to Mount Rainier, MD.
Bill and I arrived here just a few days ago after a several months of restless movement, never quite at ease because something important needed doing. When we were back in the Dominican Republic, in October, a leak we had been chasing for years had finally revealed its source. If you have ever had a leaky boat, or even a leaky roof, you know this feeling. Water is coming in. You address one suspect, water is still coming in. Then another and another until you are pretty much ready to just accept the unacceptable fact that you have a leaky boat.
When we finally found the culprit, it was not the worst of all possibilities but it wasn’t good. We had overlooked that the previous owners of Maggie May (then named Vilkas) had done some less-than-stellar work on a thru-hull for one of the cockpit drains. ( A thru-hull is a hole in your boat where water is meant to go out, in the case of drains, or in through a closed circuit and then out again.) The fitting had no backing plate, just a goopy mess of sealant. How had we not noticed this before? By the time we did, the thru-hull moved easily in its bed when we shook the hose, and more water would seep in. If the fiberglass had been compromised, we didn’t know how long the fixture would endure the flexing of a boat pounding to windward for months on end.
From then on Bill would lay awake nights imagining the thru-hull failing altogether and Maggie May sinking to the bottom of wherever we happened to be. Fixing the leak moved from somewhere in the middle of our list of tasks to number 1. But that wouldn’t be so easy because we needed to get the boat out of the water to fix it properly, and we could not do that until at least Puerto Rico. We talked this problem over with several recent sailor acquaintances in Samana, DR, a few of whom who told us, with the bravado of one referring to another person’s boat, “Just go ahead and fix it in the water! All you have to do is back the thru-hull out and jam a bung in there…”
This may have worked. It could also have sunk the boat.
We resolved to get the boat out of the water as soon as that was an option, and came up with an emergency plan in case the thru-hull failed in the interim. There were no travel lifts for sailboats anywhere near where we were, or where were going in the Dominican Republic. So we kept a close eye on the leak and made plans to move on as soon as hurricane season was over. We made passage in late November to Puerto Rico, where we found a travel lift on the southern coast, but boat yard owners there and elsewhere told us they were essentially closed for the holidays from November through February. (This is my kind of country, but that was not very helpful in our situation).
By the time we got to the US Virgin Islands, the leak had not worsened and we didn’t find a good place to haul out, so we waited. Finally in Sint Maarten, we got Maggie May pulled from the water where we could refashion the thru-hull, repaint the bottom and fix some other items that very much wanted fixing. When she was splashed a couple of weeks ago, I felt better about SV Maggie May than I had for some 18-months, since we realized our costly hull repair had utterly failed, then we fouled our prop on a fishing net and a squirrel ate our mainsail.
The past weeks since then have been a journey south past St. Barts, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat to Guadeloupe, where we are now anchored in one of the loveliest parts of the sailing world. Many of these islands in the eastern Caribbean are dormant or active to semi-active volcanoes. Montserrat is the most clearly active so far, with sulfuric steam pouring from a cone that erupted just a few years ago.
In Guadeloupe, there are no brooding cones to see yet the lie of an Earth at stasis is ever laid bare. When Bill and I jumped into the water to check the anchor upon our arrival, it was some 10 degrees warmer than the bay we had swam in the day before. We snorkeled to shore where the community of Bouillante (boiling in French) seems always to be gathered and soaking in the minerals pouring forth from their mountain. But it isn’t just the humans of this community who are drawn to this wonder. Also gathered are hundreds of fish, sergeant majors, blue tangs, trumpet fish and many more. I wouldn’t expect them to be able to survive the heat and the concentrated salinity of the water pouring out of the mountain. But in truth, water of the bay, and indeed of the ocean, is complex. The hottest water forms a surface layer of surprising current and a dreamy obscurity, but when you dive down to the bottom a colder layer is crystal clear and nearly still. Between them a brief middle ground forms a barrier between the two extremes where the temperatures diverge, and I imagine the chemical make-up also differentiates.
I have been reading lately of the global currents that govern much of Earth’s climate. How the Gulf Stream, a warm water current, rides swiftly above a colder water current that runs in places at a different speed and even in the opposite direction of the Gulf Stream! There is so much going on under the surface of things and all around us. Here in Bouillante one can feel the power of that unseen and unimaginable energy circulating through air, water and earth. And also get a really damn good baguette.
Many many thanks to all those of you who have supported this journey and blog.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, almost anywhere, animals, beauty, biodiversity, boat, Caribbean, circumnavigation, contemplation, Dominican Republic, dream, ecosystem, environment, environmental, geology, geothermal, Guadeloupe, history, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, ocean, philosophy, photography, sailboat, sailing, sv maggie may, underwater, volcano, wild, wildlife, Writing
Posted on January 17, 2022
I woke this morning at first light and climbed the four steep companionway stairs into the cockpit. I have climbed these stairs 1000 times in the past 18 months.
The boat interior was dark but the sun, still below the mountains to the east, cast a pale light on the clouds in the western sky. Presently it began to rain, a light sprinkle only, and a rainbow appeared, arcing with one foot in the puffy green mounts of St. John, US Virgin Islands, and the other in Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
A narrow channel separates these two island nations, and some 15 years ago Bill and I got in a dinghy in Tortola and motored through its swift currents so we could snorkel in the national park waters of St. John (where we are moored right now), in Waterlemon Bay. This strikes me now as unwise, both because the current can run four knots through here and also because it wasn’t strictly legal.
That trip 15 years ago was a beginning, the spark that set us planning over so many years to save money, buy a boat, learn how to sail and navigate and care for her, and so many other steps that have brought us to this place at this time.
That trip was taken with five other friends on a charter sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. One of those friends, Jeff, we had sailed with for many years on the Chesapeake Bay. Jeff was the first friend I made when I moved to Washington DC more than 20 years ago. Friendship came easy with Jeff, but an added appeal to this friendship was that his dog Cody was the only dog that my dog Maggie respected. I won’t say liked, because she didn’t like dogs. But Cody she respected. And Cody tolerated Maggie. And we had ourselves a friend family.
Many years later when we headed off to the BVIs, it was a dream trip for Jeff and Bill and I, and there was a moment, somewhere between the islands of Virgin Gorda and Anegada, when a new dream took root, the one I find myself living now. We were all sitting in the cockpit and the boat was sailing so beautifully toward the northeast where the shallow passages between islands ended and the Atlantic Ocean began. One of us, Jeff I think, said “Let’s just keep going.” And we all smiled and nodded and agreed that that was where our hearts would go.
We didn’t own that boat. And none of the other friends aboard would have shared our enthusiasm for the wide open Atlantic, not in the least. But for Bill and I, that experience marked the germination of a seed with dogged roots that clung to a dream for all the years between then and now as I sit writing in the small bay we illegally visited in the charter dinghy so long ago.
We are here legally this time.
This morning, during ‘morning time’ (an unspecified amount of time usually before 11am when Bill and I sit in different parts of the boat and read or write or think quietly) I began reading a book I’ve been holding onto for years. Not because I didn’t want to read it. But because I wanted to read it so much that I was saving it for the most perfect time and place. I wanted to be a certain me when I read it. The me that could understand and appreciate it most. Maybe I am that me now because I opened it this morning while sleep still clung to me and the sound of the ocean rustled against the rocky shores of Waterlemon Cay.
Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was first published in 1951. Today she is known better for Silent Spring, but it was this book that first brought international attention to her work and ideas, which have since altered the neural pathways of the human species.
I just began the first chapter, which is about beginnings. The beginnings of Earth, the moon and of the sea. In a way it is about the concept of time itself, a phenomenon so hard to grasp for such short-lived creatures as ourselves. We wring our hands about so many details of our lives. About this action we or someone else did or didn’t do. About getting to this and that on time, meeting deadlines, making grades, finding purpose, having an impact. Saving the world. But we are so very small. A stardust mote floating through space time. So small we can’t even really understand time, any more than we can understand how a butterfly sees the world.
I think about everything that went into getting Bill and I to this little bay with its clear waters and thousands upon thousands of creatures living their lives beneath the surface. It is nothing in the scale of time. It is everything to us.
Yesterday I spent one long infinity of a moment with an octopus while snorkeling. I myself was utterly changed forever by this vision of a creature so wondrous, so improbable, built cell by cell through an alchemy of ages and ages of Earth. This living, shimmering, thinking, feeling, water-made-flesh flowing through the shallow sea.
The beautiful octopus has perhaps forgotten me already.
I can feel the symmetry of this day of octopus thoughts to that day so long ago with Jeff, so long ago but in the same space on Earth, when we decided we wanted to be…here. Despite so many events, excitements, heartbreaks and stumbles in the intervening years, we have come full circle in a universe of spinning circles hundreds of thousands of millions of years old, embers sparking and glowing and flaming and dying.
Every moment matters so little and so much.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, blog, boat, book, British, Caribbean, environment, island, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, ocean, octopus, photography, Rachel Carson, sailboat, sailing, St. John, sv maggie may, The Sea Around Us, united states, US, Virgin Islands, wildlife, Writing
Posted on October 27, 2021
Aside from a long-term vegetarian diet I generally have eschewed dieting. Physical expectations for women in my culture are toxic, and also, I’m just not a very regimented person by nature. But since we moved onto a boat the idea of dieting has gained appeal. I’m talking bout a regimen. A conscious approach to what I consume, where it comes from and what the implications are for the microcosm of me and Bill and Maggie May, and perhaps more importantly for the places we visit and the world at large.
One of the most interesting things about boat life is the degree to which we can be self-sufficient, storing or producing everything we need to live for more than a month at a time. This requires a level of effort and a degree of consciousness not demanded by life back in Mount Rainier, Maryland—where garbage is set on the curb to disappear and never be heard from again; sewage goes out of body, down a drain and out of mind; endless water is in the tap; endless energy is wired into the house; heat extremes are as easy to deal with as stepping into and out of the house; food is a block away at the Glut food coop; and doctor, dentist, therapist are a metro ride or walk away. What a comfortable, easy life! At home I could choose to be conscientious and recycle, compost, buy wind power, or really conscientious and reuse or reduce my household waste, energy and water. But I could also not do that and everything would run just as smoothly from my comfortable vantage point in my home (though of course not for the planet).
On the boat, the system of unseen services a land community (in a privileged wealthy nation) provides is largely absent. Our comfort and even perhaps survival depend on us managing resources wisely, figuring out how we will have enough food, water, energy; what we will do with our waste; how we will cope with medical crises and mechanical or structural failures on the boat. If we act without forethought, we will feel a cost. In this way, natural scarcity is imposed upon us in a way that I personally have never felt before. This challenge, these costs, this consciousness, is the bargain we make for our wandering lifestyle.
In exchange for a certain thoughtfulness about how we use space, water, food and energy, and money, we are granted an unlimited access to something so precious, so rare, so lacking in our lives before this–time. A richness of time I have never before experienced, (except maybe as a child, but then everyone is always bossing you around).
We also have a type of freedom deeper and broader than any expanse I have ever felt. There is no such thing as total freedom. Life without the imposition of constraint is a mythology. We are animals and we must eat and hydrate and find shelter. But within these inescapable confines there exists a profound space to be encountered. The closest parallel for me would be a long backpacking trip. But even then you are constrained by what you can carry on your back and whether there is fresh water at hand. What we can carry on Maggie May’s back allows for exploration of weeks at a time in the stillness of the wild, away from the endless noise and haste of an engine driven world. If we are wise and abide the laws of natural scarcity.
Freedom and time.
We fill our bounty of time with various wonderful and tiresome and terrifying and edifying things, one of which is mindfulness about topics I just didn’t have time, or maybe energy, for before. Often these thoughts turn to the laboratory of sustainability that a closed system like a boat can be. Which brings me back to diets.
Before we started this trip, years before, Bill and I began turning our minds to the challenges of scarcity and how we would greet them on the boat. Because his background was energy policy and green building, Bill was in a good position to set us up on the energy front. I took on the problem of waste, particularly trash and plastics. We both thought about water scarcity, Bill wrangled the sewage question, I managed food scarcity. We created plans for dealing with each of these challenges in new ways (for us, in our lives) and all of these solutions have in some way required an adherence to diets, regimens.
Challenge inspires innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention. This truth is the universal fuel of evolution, the bold and unmerciful hand that shapes all creation. It is also one of the most important tools of social evolution, the tried and tested philosophy behind things like bag fees, stormwater fees, and carbon taxes. Putting a cost on something forces recognition of a value that is being squandered, like clean rivers, a healthy climate system, clean air.
On the policy level, taxes that place a value on resources we tend to abuse are meant to prompt us to think about how we are using those resources and to spark innovative ways to conserve them. And they work, when governments are courageous enough to use them and communities are wise enough to embrace them. Imposed costs spur creative solutions, much like fire forces adaptation in plants and animals. 10 cents for a plastic bag doesn’t seem like a forest fire, certainly a lot less painful, but in a matter of a few years this small fee cleared the Anacostia River of most of its plastic bags and raised important funds for river restoration in Washington DC.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t need to impose costs because we would all be aware of the intrinsic cost of all resource use and we would voluntarily choose to conserve. That is not the world we live in. Not yet. At this stage of our evolution when something is free and seemingly endless, we as a species squander it. Putting a price on carbon and plastics and pollution, things we all want us to generate less of, causes people make different choices in response to these valuations. A person could choose to reuse their plastics or reduce their purchasing of items with single use plastic. Under a carbon tax they might decide to drive less and bus or bike more. Or buy an electric vehicle instead of one that requires gasoline. They may ultimately decide that having fewer kids is a smart answer, since everyone’s consumption and carbon footprint is multiplied by the number of kids and grandkids they have. But the large majority of people will not think about these things until society places them squarely in front of their eyes and says: act responsibly, or pay accordingly so we can fix the damage that you do. For the common good.
For us aboard the microcosm of Maggie May, the danger of not conserving is very real and present. In addition to the costs to the global ecosystem, we feel immediate impacts to our boat wide common good in loss of self-sufficiency, loss of freedom when our trips must be cut short for lack of water or food, or trash overflowing, or no energy to run critical boat functions like navigation lights and emergency communications. Or, if we are on a long ocean passage the cost may be our health or our lives if unforseen weather extends the trip and we have not conserved wisely.
Over a series of blogs within the Maggie May blog, The Boat Lab blog, I’m going to share some of the things we’ve learned while addressing the various challenges of self-sufficiency and conservation, including energy/carbon, trash, human waste, food and water. Each of these will be handled separately, though they are all interconnected.
The blogs will address some interesting questions: Just how far off the grid have we been able get? How might we do better? Are there things we know we could improve on, but well, we just love potato chips and peanut butter and so we are going to allow ourselves some guilty pleasures? Just how many types of biological life can infest a composting toilet and which ones are the least desirable companions on a boat? And how might this all translate to our lives back home?
So much learning.
I won’t be saying anything Ben Franklin didn’t say or get credited with saying, so if you don’t have time to read the blogs, here they are in short Franklinian phrasing:
He that would live in peace & at ease, Must not speak all he knows or judge all he sees.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
When the well is dry they know the worth of water.
If you desire many things, many things will seem few.
No gains without pains.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Hunger is the best pickle.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, Anacostia, bag fee, Bahamas, beauty, Ben Franklin, boat, carbon tax, climate change, conservation, contemplation, diet, dieting, Dominican Republic, energy, environment, environmental, krista schlyer, Maggie May, maryland, memoir, nature, ocean, philosophy, photography, plastic, pollution, sailboat, sailing, scarcity, solar, sustainability, sv maggie may, trash, washington dc, watershed, wind, Writing
Posted on September 21, 2021
One recent morning in Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic a land breeze blew gently from the west. For us this was unexpected, and a pleasant surprise. We were returning from a trip to Los Haitises National Park and were assuming that our eastward sail back to the marina northeast of Los Haitises would be nose to the trade winds, or no wind at all.
A gift from the Four Winds comes rarely for the SV Maggie May, so Bill and I were filled with gratitude for the broad reach in 10 knots, calm seas, the sweetest of sailing. As I steered the boat, I closed my eyes and guided the boat by the feel of the wind on my face. A good deal of our sailing happens at night, sometimes without moonlight, so feeling calm and confident in the dark, while taking responsibility for the boat and crew, is an essential and still-lacking skill for me. I hypothesized that closing my eyes and using the force (of the wind) to orient me might help ease my disorientation at night.
After a short while Bill said “Why are we 20 degrees off course?” And then, “Why are your eyes closed.”
I opened my eyes and righted us. Explained to Bill what I was up to. Tried again. Went off course again. It may take some time to develop this skill. A while later Bill took over steering and he too closed his eyes.
I watched the boat’s heading go awry, snickering to myself.
“How’mi doing,” he asked.
“You were steering 60 degrees, right?”
“You’re steering about 80.”
He laughed. We talked about how to discern if there was a lull in the wind or if your angle on the wind had changed. They tend to feel about the same. He tried again. This time, eyes closed for several minutes he stayed on course within three or four degrees. (Did you ever have a friend who was better than you at almost every damn thing?)
So it was that type of rare and wondrous morning. Easy. Gentle. Light and lightening. When long-held burdens of the soul lift and time seems to stretch out and relax, lounge about easily as if it means to stay a while. Just here.
Like childhood, when time seems endless, no endings pressing in on you. No expectations unmet or sadnesses than can weigh upon you for long, long years.
I could have passed the morning this way and considered it perfect, as near perfect a sail as I have ever had. As near perfect a stretch of time as I could recall. But then something else happened.
Dark clouds began to gather ahead and to the east. Almost certainly they would soon be overhead and threaten to make our return to the marina difficult or impossible. I wasn’t worried, we could divert to nearby Cayo Levantado and anchor for a bumpy few hours while the storm blew over. But the moment of near-perfect ease was soon to end.
When the rain began to mist over the boat we stowed everything we didn’t want to get wet, closed all the hatches and stayed alert. But the mist never gathered into rain or deluge and the wind never rose. We could see a rain line disrupting the water to the north and east, but the dark clouds lightened to pale gray above us. From the east, light stole through holes in the wall of clouds and cast itself upon curtains of rain along the coast of the Samana Peninsula. White sun beams smashed into that wet curtain and scattered into a full spectrum rainbow that stretched across the dark western sky.
The morning had gone from near-perfect to perfect. And time lay back and stretched and yawned and slept. The rainbow seemed to come alive—it was for some time whole, a single arc across the sky, thin and pale. Then it broke apart into two ends of a rainbow which each had their own character. One soft and small, the other bold and animate, shrinking and growing as the clouds in the east gathered and dispersed then gathered again. At one point this half-rainbow grew thick and the color so intense it seemed likely to burst apart. And then it just stayed and stayed as time slumbered on.
“This is the longest rainbow I’ve ever seen,” I said to Bill.
And then several minutes later I said, “I mean, it’s still here!” I was incredulous. “It refuses to leave, no matter what!”
It did eventually leave. As rainbows do. But here was a gift from time and light and rain I’ll never, ever forget.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Featured, Maggie May, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, boat, Caribbean, circumnavigation, contemplation, Dominican Republic, dream, environment, environmental grief, gratitude, grief, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, national park, nature, ocean, philosophy, rainbow, sailboat, sailing, schlyer, sv maggie may, video, Writing
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
Posted on August 24, 2021
Guest blog by Bill Updike, El Capitan of the SV Maggie May.
Krista and I have witnessed many examples of magic out here on the seas of our little blue planet. We spent our nights at anchor in Warderick Wells (Bahamas) marveling at the bioluminescent laser light show of hundreds of Bermuda fireworms floating, dancing, glowing and mating along the current rip flowing by our boat. Seriously, google these littleguys—it’s a crazy wildlife spectacle. And seeing other bioluminescent creatures, like the microscopic dinoflagellates that sparkle along the hulls of boats and sometimes dangling-feet in Atlantic and Caribbean waters.
We paddled a kayak through crystal clear mangrove “creeks” abounding in baby and juvenile sea turtles—it turns out that, unlike their massive parents, the little ones move like lightning. When diving, we’ve seen myriads of underwater marvels—giant sea worms, silkily moving sharks, the bird-like motions of mantas and spotted eagle rays, a “cleaning station” set up by a small shrimp where a fish would come to have their scales and gills cleaned by the shrimp, only to depart and let the next fish have their turn. Imagine paying for a car wash with nothing but bacteria.
These moments with nature’s magic have led me to think a lot about the idea of human-made mediated magic, and of its presence, or rather omnipresence, in our modern world. Krista and I recently finished listening to the Harry Potter series on audiobook. It brought us a lot of joy to listen to the entertaining books while floating around in the sea. There’s nothing quite like hearing Dumbledore and Harry amidst breaking waves outside Voldemort’s evil horcrux-holding cave, while sailing on a boat hearing the crashing of real ocean waves on rocks.
But I have also been pondering the crazy popularity of the series, and how it speaks greatly to our modern need for magic. A part of me sees beauty in that longing, but another worries about what it portends. Beautiful because it reveals our human capacity for imagination, for thinking outside of the curse of endless explainability, from our info-transfused Wikipedia-ified world. What happens to imagination when you can get an immediate answer to basically any question you ever have? Our longing for magic may also reveal our ability for stepping outside of ourselves, and hopefully for a potential to accept otherness, something we desperately need in this historical moment.
But our current obsession with magic has I think, like many things, a shadow side. It seems like we are moving towards a culture, at least in the United States, where the only movies made by Hollywood are those full of Marvel or DC superheroes. We have drifted to a culture where our basic (base?) humanness is no longer enough to satisfy the big screen. Perhaps, the mundanity of our conspicuous consumer-ness has left us with a void that demands filling from the outside, from outrageously superheroic acts of heroism impossible for us clumsy humans to achieve. It has left me feeling that we need to relearn how to marvel at our humanness and our natural world, rather than marvel only at our Marvel superheroes.
We’ve been filling that void left by our conspicuous consumption (at least those of us with the means to be conspicuous in our consumption in the world) by consuming more and more narratives of magic, but I think it may ultimately be a negative, and not just a zero sum game. Our insatiable consumption creates an arms race against ourselves, and has left much of the U.S., and other places in the world, in a self-inflicted war of indebtedness and buried in piles of plastics.
Beyond just regular folks fighting debt and consuming things we don’t need sold by companies that don’t care about us, there’s an even larger and environmentally damaging arms race of consumption happening among the elites. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the multitude of megayachts we have witnessed along our travels, in particular along the coasts of the small islands in the Bahamas. These sea giants, sometimes 300-400 feet long, rivaling cruise ships and costing 100s of millions of dollars, show up at a previously quiet anchorage towing another 50-foot-long powerboat (their “play boat”), and then quickly disgorge even more small boats, jet skis, and other machinery from their stern garages. They tie the offal behind the behemoths in a row so that it looks like a mother goose with her goslings, except with polluting and noisy machines, so not as cute. These 300-400 foot long yachts generally have more serving staff on them than passengers, similar to those 20,000 square foot McMansions with only two residents and rooms never used or seen.
The passengers then proceed to tear around the anchorages as if they owned the world, which I guess in a sense they do (in fact, some whole islands in the Bahamas are owned by one person). These “dei in machinas” create massive amounts of noise, pollution and waves, all the while missing the (formerly) quiet beauty of the magical and multihued Bahamian islands. After blazing around the anchorage, they then quickly leave to find a “better” beach even though pretty much all beaches in the Bahamas are the very definition of perfection. I even heard one of the megayachties complain on one beach that the sand was not “fine” enough—oh nooooooo, what will happen to one’s perfectly pedicured and silky soft feet! The horror!
In my less kind moments (after a wave from a jet ski has nearly swamped us rowing our little kayak), I would say that the size of the megayachts are inversely proportional to the depths of owners’ souls. But really I think that the size of the megayachts, and the total number of spewing toys, is more directly proportional to their fear of the void.
Which leads me back to magic. The megayachties magic is in money and machines. And in their conjurations of machines from the bellies of their beasts, I think they miss out on the greatest opportunity that life on the world’s oceans has to offer—the time to live outside of what most would call a “normal life,” the immense gift that silence has to offer for free and with no debt attached, and the opportunity to use that silence to explore deep inside ourselves and wrestle with the void and try to come to peace with it. Essentially to create our own magic out of mundanity.
In our obsession with mediated magic, and its offer of a temporary break from thoughts of the void and of our fear of silence, I think we miss perhaps the greatest gift that our little blue planet offers us. Not food and water (though those are pretty damn important too), but the magic that is literally all around us, and the unmediated awe that descends gratis when we slow down, step into the silence, and look again like children do at the fantasy world in which we live.
One ubiquitous example of nature’s magic comes in one of its smallest packages—the diminutive but powerful pistol shrimp. Only around 1.5 inches in length and less than an ounce in weight, the pistol shrimp moves its claws at more than 60 miles/hour. For this small creature in a small space, the speed is so fast that it creates a vacuum bubble that has such a low pressure that a water pulse emerges with a noise of almost 220 decibels—louder than a bullet, hence the shrimp’s name.
Perhaps more astoundingly, the snap creates a resultant temperature of around 4800 degrees Celcius (around 8600 degrees Fahrenheit)—similar to the surface temp of the sun! It’s all just crazy times infinity. The enormous pressure also creates a visible plasma arc which causes another compression and a flash of light from the sound itself—in a process known by the weighty word sonoluminescence (similar to how lightning and thunder interact). We humans think we have a monopoly on magic in all our Harry Potters and Marvels, but the teeny tiny pistol shrimp begs to differ, or really doesn’t care I guess. It’s just down there in the sea making its magic every day without a care in the world (except for getting eaten).
When we are silent, Krista and I hear the snapping sounds of the shrimp under our boat every night and are chock full with wonder. Hollywood has nothing to do with it. And although I love a good superhero movie as much as the next nerd, for me I will take the humble pistol shrimp over the $300 million Marvel movie any night of the week. And when I struggle with stepping into the void, I try to think of the little pistol shrimp snapping away as a constant reminder of the magic all around us all the damn time. And it helps.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, animals, Bahamas, beauty, bill updike, boat, Caribbean, contemplation, Dominican Republic, environment, Harry Potter, Maggie May, magic, memoir, nature, ocean, philosophy, sailboat, sailing, superhero, sv maggie may, wildlife
Posted on April 16, 2021
My computer still refuses to turn on so in lieu of a normal blog, while we have WiFi, I’ll post some thoughts/mini-blogs to try and catch up the SV Maggie May story.
We left Great Harbour in the Berry Islands on March 28 hoping to get to the Exumas over a couple of days, in advance of a cold front that was sure to bring some unpleasantness.
The first day’s sail was a perfect downwind run up to the northern tip of the Berries, where we headed east on a gorgeous reach to the east side of the island chain, along Great Stirrup Cay, which cruise lines have made into a ridiculous amusement park—the paradise of the Bahamas just isn’t quite enough.
Sailing anchorage to anchorage in the Bahamas requires a keen eye toward reading the water. It is inadvisable to travel on cloudy days, with the sun in your eyes or too low on any horizon, because glare obscures the various colors of the water. These waters are much better charted than they ever were, but still there are rocks and coral heads and shoals that you can only avoid by knowing what color the water around them looks like. In general, blue and blue-green are good, black, white and yellow are bad, but also some browns are bad and some are good. The nuances escape a newbie and for Bill and I, having known a good deal of bad luck aboard the Maggie May, anxiety follows us from anchorage to anchorage.
When we arrived at Soldier Cay, a nurse shark swam a couple laps around the boat as we were setting the anchor. We marveled, watched the sun set and moon rise and slapped together some dinner before hitting the bed. We rose at dawn, prepped the boat and followed our GPS track out as soon as we could see reasonably well, because we needed to get from Soldier to the west side of Nassau in time to read the water into our next anchorage. That day the wind was ever on our nose and the waves and wind were building more than expected. The sea, seeming in a big hurry to get somewhere, piled upon itself. The waves were only about 2-4 feet but steep and close together and battling us every step toward Nassau. We arrived in plenty of light to see the few rocks that were sprinkled about Charlotte Bay, a beautiful harbor of green glass water encircled by mansions so we felt compelled to grumble just a bit about the gross excesses of the rich.
When the anchor was good and set we made dinner and downloaded the weather forecast on our Iridium Go. Then we spent dinner discussing our options. The cold front would be blowing from the north/northeast. There were only a few places within a days sail where we could find a protected anchorage. The forecasted wind direction wasn’t really good for any of the options, we would be heading into the wind wherever we went. From the list of uncertainties and mediocre options we chose to get up before dawn and go to Highborne Cay in the Exumas.
With a near full moon we followed our route back out to deep water in the pre-dawn hours the following day. For the first hour it was as quiet and pleasant a moonlight sail as we’ve had. And then the wind picked up and shifted to come from precisely our heading to Highborne. We could no longer sail with the wind dead ahead and were ever mindful of timing our entrance to Highborne for daylight. What followed is a long unpleasant story about one of the worst days we’ve had traveling across the Exuma Bank. I’ll spare you the details but here are the lowlights…Every dozen minutes we asked ourselves if we should turn back as the waves got bigger and steeper with the wind at 20-25 knots. We alternated who would steer every 30-45 minutes because it was so exhausting and stressful trying to maneuver safely through the constant 6-8 foot+ waves at 2-3 second intervals. This requires a different kind of water reading. More of a feeling your way through the path of least resistance. Where the waters surprisingly steely violence will do the least harm to boat and crew. Often getting it wrong if your attention strays just a little. And then Poseidon pounds against the sides of the bow with a thick wooden plank, hurling the sea over the bow, dodger and bimini.
There was a moment we almost turned back, then we realized we were halfway there. The waves slowed our forward motion so much that our speed wavered from 2-6 knots. It was a misery. And seeming without end. 10 hours on constant alert, getting thrashed up! Down! Side! Side!
But when we got within a few miles of Highborne the waves began to calm and as the island came into full view a rainbow appeared over Highborne and remained all through our entrance to the anchorage. A squall that could have made things even worse passed mercifully around us.
When the anchor hit the sand and held, relief washed over us both like a giddiness.
We would worry about the cold front tomorrow and never, ever, plan to sail at an angle less than 60 degrees off the bow, unless in an emergency. Ever. Every day we learn a little something new. The next lesson: How to emotionally confront daily life in the most beautiful place you have ever seen.
Posted on February 12, 2021
Fort Pierce, Florida, Birthplace of Maggie May
Everything tastes so much better when you have reached the far side of an unexpected ordeal. My coffee this morning. The new box of Walkers shortbread I just opened. The breakfast eggs and potatoes Bill made. Some 16 hours ago I thought there would be no more breakfasts on the Maggie May. Just for about 60 seconds, or maybe 10 minutes, it’s hard to gauge this precisely when each second stretches and stretches beyond the theoretical elasticity of that particular unit of time.
We cast off lines in St. Augustine geared up to get south of West Palm, Florida, where we planned to take a relatively short, straight line across the Gulf Stream to reach the Bahamas. But first we would sail offshore to Fort Pierce, then get back on the inland waterway to travel another day south to the Lake Worth inlet. In central Florida the space between the Gulf Stream and land narrows to almost nothing. Fort Pierce was about as far we could go in the ocean before the current would be against us. For a sailboat whose max hull speed is 7.5 knots and average speed of 4-5 knots depends entirely on the generosity of the wind, a 2-4 knot current can send you backwards. So, we planned to go to Fort Pierce offshore, then head in for the last stretch on the Intracoastal Waterway.
When we arrived at the St. Augustine inlet, we started to head out toward the ocean but the narrow channel looked rough. We had timed it for high tide slack, but getting timing right on tide and current, especially in unfamiliar inlets, is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you get it wrong, things can go oh-so-very-wrong. And we haven’t had a lot of experience. We checked tide tables and weather and even asked for advice from a local TowBoat US captain, who said something to the effect of: Its a weird inlet. Days I think it is going to be near impassable and it’s calm as a pond. Other days I think its going to be easy and…
Not super helpful.
We hesitated at the entrance to the inlet, then turned the boat around and went to the mooring field in town. While we were talking over our options, we saw a sailboat about our size moving toward the inlet. We decided to watch them and then hail the boat on the VHF to see if it was a reasonable time to go. I made note of the boat’s name: Andiamo Two.
We followed and watched their passage through the inlet. It looked a bit rough, but they managed it and made it to the ocean side. Meanwhile another sailboat much smaller than ours was also heading out. Bill followed that boat and I hailed Andiamo Two on the VHF. “Andiamo Two, Andiamo Two. This is Maggie May,” I waited for an answer. Repeated. No reply.
We then noticed the smaller sailboat had thought better of the thing and turned about. In a few minutes we saw the wisdom of their choice as there were 6 foot very steep waves that began to crash over Maggie May’s nose. It was too late to turn back without risking a hit broad side and getting knocked down in that narrow space between two jagged rock jetties. The entire space between the jetties consisted of a cement mixer of steep and breaking waves. Wave after wave rushing toward us and on every hit Maggie May’s bow would bury in the chaos. As her nose came up, water would crash over the boat toward the cockpit and over our dodger and bimini (cockpit covering). Maggie May had never taken such a pounding. I just kept my eyes on the waves and on goddam Andiamo Two beyond the chaos. If they could get through…
Finally the waves began to subside a few feet and we began to breath again. We both looked a little bitterly at Andiamo Two, now with her sails happily up and heading south.
“Andiamo. We should have known from the name not to follow them,” Bill said.
“Who is the greater fool: the fool? or the fool who follows him,” I offered, referencing Obi-Wan. “And Andiamo Two? I think we know what happened to Andiamo One.”
With that out of our systems we began raising the sails. The waves were still somewhat steep and unpleasant, and I had gotten a good head start on some seasickness, but with the sails up Maggie May handles these conditions better than under engine. I was, since we had made it through, relieved that Andiamo Two had helped make our decision for us. We might still have been deliberating on the mooring field, or have decided to stay and wait out the cold fronts, or travel the ICW all the way to West Palm, and I was eager to be out on the ocean again.
We started our watch schedule. Two hours at the helm, two hours resting. I took the first turn at the helm.
Conditions were not what we had hoped. The forecast called for wind going east, but it stayed north/northeast. Since we were headed south, that meant we were near dead downwind much of the time with waves frequently rocking the boat side-to-side as well as hobby horsing us when the wind would slacken. The wind was also lighter than expected, 5-10 knots rather than 10-15, which makes a big difference for a boat like Maggie May when running downwind. With so little wind to fill the sails, and with the main often blocking wind from getting to the genoa (that’s the big sail at the front of the boat), the genoa would frequently flap around wildly. The waves were disrupting the angle of the wind on the sails, making the boat want to jibe wantonly. We had a preventer rigged to keep the main from jibing accidentally, but the genoa was a wild card, herking-jerking with ill timed wind and wave. At one point the unpredictable motion knocked Bill against a teak corner down below, hurting his back. Had it not been for that we would have used our new gib pole, designed to make the genoa behave in just such conditions. But it takes some effort to set up and Bill’s back together with my seasickness made us disinclined to tackle this.
Sometimes sailing can be the most beautiful, peaceful thing. Wind, sails, hull and waves in perfect connection. The best feeling, flying over the ocean quietly, as a living part of it, rather than as a machine plowing through.
This was not that feeling.
When you need to go one way and the wind strongly suggests you go another, you may be able to do what you want, but wind and water will make sure you suffer for it. We had to go our way. The wind wanted us to head toward the Gulf Stream, with a cold front blowing in from the north. That is the worst possible scenario. We were not going there. So we sailed on as best we could until the wind wandered off altogether. We also needed to get where we were going at a certain time. Inlets are often challenging for boats, as evidenced by our exit from St. Augustine. We hoped to time our arrival at the Fort Pierce inlet for slack tide the next afternoon, so we wouldn’t be facing the rage of an outgoing current against a wind coming from the east, or heading into the unfamiliar inlet in the dark. Rather than toss around on the ocean until the wind returned we switched on the engine. There was an upside to this. With just an hour of daylight left, I spotted a dolphin near the bow, and then another and another. They were following the boat, surfing our bow wake. I scrambled up to watch them darting in and out of our wake, a confluence of effortless power, speed and grace. Like creatures built of nothing but water and light, chaperoning Maggie May into the night.
When the dolphins moved on I suggested to Bill that he go rest his back, while I take back-to-back watches. He protested. But I reminded him that he had done that for me on the last passage and it was my turn.
I was on watch when the sun went down behind the Florida coast and shortly afterward, when Sirius and Orion became visible on the southeastern horizon. These two guided the boat through much of the night, with a third companion surfacing from the east shortly thereafter. It appeared first as a strange irregular orange pinpoint on the horizon. Earlier Bill had pointed out an endless line of cumulus clouds to the east and said, “I bet that’s the Gulf Stream.” That white band had become a dark band and within it was a strange orange glow, not very large, which I mistook for the light of a ship. Then it dawned, no, that’s the moon mostly hidden within a wall of moisture risen from the world’s largest ocean current. I felt a sharp pang in my chest. On reflection, it brings tears to my eyes. We haven’t come that far, relative to our initial goal, but every inch was hard won physically and emotionally and this sight is a dream.
I hadn’t expected the moon to rise quite so soon and before long it had risen above the cumulus wall and was fully visible, deep orange and enormous. Just a tad waning but fully gibbous. My mind went immediately to a memory from 25 years past of my boyfriend Dan telling me about the moon illusion. We had seen a full moon rise over Tucson, Arizona, a giant of moons it seemed. He explained how its apparent size was a trick of perception because in fact the moon remains the same size and can even be measured to show it occupies the same space regardless of where it is in the sky, but our eyes cannot see it as the same size. “You can take your finger and cover the moon from view on the horizon. Then take the same finger at the same distance from your eye and cover the moon anywhere in the sky. It is the same relative size. But your eyes see something different,” he said in awe. There are many hypotheses as to what causes this illusion, but it remains somewhat mysterious, he told me.
What a gift to have such a moon bookending memories throughout a lifetime. Dan has been gone for more than 20 years now, cancer took him from my life and the world at age 28, but he was so present with me as the moon ascended, chasing Canus Major westward across the sky.
I almost went down and woke Bill so he could see it, twice I got up to do so, but figured he should rest. After the moon had fully risen and shrunk to half its size in my eyes, he came up the companionway stairs.
“You can still rest, I’m doing fine,” I said.
“I can’t sleep, I may as well be on watch.”
So I went down to record my watch log (weather, lat/lon position, sea state, observations, etc) and then climbed into my sea berth. (This is a special bed with high sides, or in this case a lee cloth, to keep one from tumbling out as the boat rocks and rolls.) It took a while to fall asleep, and as soon as I did, it seemed, Bill was shaking my shoulder gently. I looked up at him, “My turn?”
I gathered my stuff under a red night vision light. When I climbed up the companionway into the cockpit, it seemed like a pale blue version of daylight had descended. The moon was now nearly overhead, just to port of the mast. On the starboard side, off the bow, Sirius and Orion. This orientation guided me throughout the watch. My seasickness had now ebbed almost completely. In the moonlight I could always keep sight of the horizon. I can see why so many sailors are inclined to start a passage on a full moon. The full dark can be so disorienting until you get accustomed to it. With the moon I could see everything I needed. Maggie May continued to be bounced by the ocean swell, but we were on motor through the night so at least the sails weren’t banging and thrashing with every wave. I dislike the sound of the engine, there is something troubling and tiring about the grind and vibration of it, so we try to sail at every possible moment. But if we missed our chance to enter the Fort Pierce inlet at slack tide the following day, we risked be caught outside the inlet for days without a safe window to enter. Such was the doom of the weather forecast.
Bill and I traded watches through the night and at dawn I rose and made myself some tea before taking over. When I got on deck there was already a faint glow to the east and a strange line of shadows all along the horizon, very near. The sight took me aback. For a moment I was sure I saw an impossible dark forest stretching the length of the Atlantic Ocean, with the sun about to rise behind it. In fact, while I slept we had come to our closest approach to the Gulf Stream.
“Wow, the Gulf Stream is so close!”
Before long the sun had broken the cloud forest spectacularly, the clouds fracturing its piercing rays into diffuse beams of yellow and orange. For the rest of the morning Bill and I sat watch together. When we were about 2 hours from Fort Pierce, the wind began to pick up so we were able to turn the motor off and sail the last stretch. The wind continued to increase to a steady 20 knots and we arrived early to the inlet, about 2 pm, with low tide forecast to be 3:08. We needed slack water, so we turned around and headed back out for 45 minutes before turning around again and sailing back in.
At this point we should have hailed the Coast Guard on the VHF and inquired about timing on entering the inlet. With the strengthening wind, the ocean was beginning to heave. We were torn between getting through the inlet before it got worse, or making sure the ebb current had gone fully slack. We each had read that the number one thing is not to go into an inlet when there is a current opposing wind, especially the ebb current (the current created by the tide going out). But it can be hard to judge when the current will shift in inlets, and we did not know these waters. We waited until 3:25, thinking the tidal current had surely slackened or reversed at that point since we were well past low tide. But we had seen no other boats going in the inlet, a sign it was not yet a good idea. Just then, several boats arrived and appeared to enter successfully. (Though we were still a mile out and couldn’t see the details).
We started our approach. Another boat, which seemed to have been playing the same waiting game, was following about 10 minutes behind us.
At first it seemed all was fine. We had about 3-5 foot ocean swell behind us, but it was manageable. I took the binoculars and looked at the inlet, rough, but it didn’t seem worse than what we were in. We continued on past the outer channel markers. I looked again through the binoculars at the narrow channel between the jetties. There were waves crashing occasionally against the rocks but the conditions in the channel appeared to be about what we were experiencing, I thought. I said as much to Bill. But doubt nagged me. Who am I to say? I don’t know what it should look like through binoculars. I know I’m looking at a distortion but is the real better than the distortion or worse? And if we wait does this get even worse and so is this our chance?
Bill interrupted my inner dispute. “Keep a lookout behind me for big waves on the stern. I can’t see them and a big one could cause a broach.”
I looked behind him and the waves were not large but one hit us on the port quarter and threw MM’s nose to port.
“Like that one,” Bill commented.
“That didn’t look large, but ok,” I said.
The waves remained constant for the 8-10 minutes it took to get the second set of red and green channel markers. It was clear the ebb current was still running against us, but so far it was only a knot or two. I could see the other boat behind us at the entrance to the channel, pacing back and forth indecisively, perhaps watching to see how we fared. And then I saw the wave sets between us begin to grow measurably, 5-6 feet now and increasing speed.
“You have a bigger one coming on,” I said to Bill. It lifted Maggie May and twisted us about. “And another one.” Bill struggled to keep the boat straight. Thankfully, just behind us there was a lull, the waves 4 feet and not as steep but also not relenting.
“You have a little breather, no big ones just now.”
His face was focused, intent.
Ahead of us the sea was heaping upon itself, marching in relentless battle-formation battalions toward the beach that lay south of the port side jetty. In the channel ahead, a melee of whitewater peaks and valleys awaited. The water broke violently over land and rocks. Perhaps 50-100 people were gathered on the jetty, fishing, wind surfing and perhaps as spectating at the inlet coliseum. We were still 500-1000 yards from the worst of it. I knew it was going to be hairy based on two things: the current was now 3.5 knots against us, and the waves were mounding up in front of us in a way that made our bow look improbably small. But it wasn’t until I turned around that I realized hairy didn’t begin to cover it. The lull had given way to 7-8 foot and higher waves as far as my eyes could see.
Every soft thing inside my ribcage lurched and then plunged into a bottomless pit. I looked at Bill, steadied my voice and said, “You’ve got some big ones coming. Not too big, but bigger.” This was a lie. They were too big, but that didn’t seem like helpful information.
When the first one hit it twisted Maggie May 40 degrees to port while pushing the whole boat some 10-20 feet to starboard. There were buoys marking the channel and wave after wave was tossing us to starboard and toward the red buoy and the rock jetty beyond. To compensate Bill would turn the helm to port and then starboard, the big danger being that every turn put us for a moment at least partially beam-to the waves and a direct hit broadside could knock us down or pull us under. Not compensating was not an option. Timing was everything and it was going to have to be impeccable if we were going to get through this.
I looked forward and saw massive waves, lines of them mounded higher than our decks and heads, ceaselessly breaking from the weight of themselves. This was beyond my capacity to process. I’ve never wanted to not go somewhere so much in all my life. (This is saying something, because I’ve had to go many places I really did not want to go.) But options were limited to one. There was no way out but through. Beyond the middle of the jetty the water calmed to such an extent that there were people in small skiffs fishing peacefully. But I had almost no hope at that point that we could arrive there safely. I was certain that, if not this wave then the next, would hit us just wrong, sending the SVMM hurdling out of control and that here, the very place we bought Maggie May (then known as Vilkas) 7 years ago, was where she would end. I could above all else feel my heart pounding within my chest, or stomach or somewhere, trying to pump wave upon wave of blood, trying to keep pace with the angry ocean. I looked back at the waves charging behind us, thrashing against stern and beam and I looked at Bill, fierce determination, concentration, or was it blankness? This could be the beginnings of catatonia. Or, he is in that place of focus where it’s just him and the boat and the water. I hoped for the latter. I had stopped telling him about the giants behind. It seemed redundant.
At one point, at the crest of a wave, I saw that the sailboat behind had followed us. This answered my question about the distorted image one sees from afar. Definitely worse. I wanted to hail them and say ‘don’t do it!’ but just then I could not move. I noticed then that the waves behind us were slightly smaller. I wanted to tell Bill but I didn’t know if it would last and didn’t want to break his focus. I looked ahead to an unbroken line of wave that reminded me of a hydraulic in a class 5 rapid. We entered, and when it spit us out, we were out, just like that, the end. But thankfully not The End.
I looked back at Bill and gave a little whimper before turning back forward as we passed a man in a small skiff serenely willing a fish to bite his line.
We headed to the nearest anchorage, watching the sailboat behind us navigate the inlet, ready to call the Coast Guard if need be. When the boat was safely inside it pulled past us as we were anchoring. Bill read the name on the stern aloud “Andiamo Two.”
Breakfast the next morning offered time for calm reflection. We did not arrive at Fort Pierce unprepared. We did our best to find the right information. But local knowledge is key to inlet passage, and we didn’t have all the information we needed. We know now what more we should have done, including more in-depth research into tide and current stations for this inlet and more voices giving us local insight. We won’t make the same mistakes again. But having faced the worst conditions we have yet encountered with Maggie May, we have a confidence we would not have otherwise attained. Bill has some experience at the helm in handling seas that one hopes to never have to handle. His mind went to focus, not panic. For that alone the experience was priceless. And we were never truly in danger, with so many people and the Coast Guard nearby for a rescue. But the boat and this dream was.
Less tangibly, the passage at Fort Pierce gave us this: fear, want… these emotions connect us to all living things, and to the hardships that forged us each to our own kind. Challenge, terror and survival seem to pluck a string that resonates those universal tones, making colors seem brighter, food taste tastier, each breath seem sweeter. This is what adventure gives us that a vacation does not. Not just a rest from hard work or the usual sights and sounds of life, but a passage beyond the safety and security we intentionally build around ourselves, a fortress with no visible boundaries but which makes life smaller somehow. Longer, but smaller. I’m not a person who craves danger, I do my very best to avoid it. But having lived with death or danger nearby on many occasions in life—some inadvertently sought and some that came barreling over me unawares—I understand what nearness to this threshold offers the creaturely mind. Ineffable awe for the mere fact of being alive with lungs for breathing, hands for holding a coffee cup, and taste buds that spring to life for a cookie.
We now plan to savor this life for a while in the land of manatees before crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. There is a tricky dance we will need to do in order to align the demands of Covid restrictions with the implacable force of the Gulf Stream and ill-tempered winter weather. We will wait out the worst of the cold front season in Cape Canaveral, lessening at least one of the trifecta of hurdles between us and the Exhumas.
Posted on November 26, 2020
A bald eagle perched in a long dead conifer has been witness to a spectacular procession of light-on-water these past 12 hours. He and Bill and I. We are all in the upper stretches of the Pungo River, near the point where the Alligator River – Pungo Canal reaches its southern terminus in North Carolina.
This canal was cut through land to create an inland connection between the Pamlico and Albamarle sounds and thereby facilitate safer boat passage along the Eastern Seaboard. It is one of many canals along the Intracoastal Waterway (known as the ICW), which connects New Jersey to Florida through an inland water route.
Yesterday Maggie May transited this canal. Yes, we have officially left our home waters on the Chesapeake Bay, as of November 19. After all that has befallen this boat and crew in the past seven months (not nearly the half of it is told in previous blogs) our departure from Norfolk on the ICW was more momentous than we had imagined it would be. The mechanical, electrical, structural, financial and emotional issues that led us to set aside our original dream of sailing around the world have not really ceased. But we have new goals. To learn Spanish and ukulele, to find clear water where we can see life below. To conquer our fears and learn to be kind to each other, even when we are afraid. And of course, the goal of all goals, to not have to have goals.
Today we find ourselves in the Pungo River watching the tail end of a rainbow alight on our bald eagle neighbor in its snaggy tree. It is coincidentally, Thanksgiving Day, my own favorite holiday. For the food. (Our propane is gone so we will be eating rice today.) For the resilience of this holiday against the ever-expanding consumerist takeover of holidays. (Not counting Black Friday because it comes after.) But mostly I love Thanksgiving for what it it celebrates. Not the part about Europeans coming to conquer and take this land for themselves, for profit, for religious expansionism. I wish that history had gone differently. I can imagine a different present day if those who carved European history into this land had held a different view of themselves and others and the land itself. To love Thanksgiving I accept its disastrous historical beginnings with a heavy heart, and look beyond to the feeling that prompted the first observance. A feeling universal in all creatures in some fashion. Gratitude. An overwhelming feeling of humble appreciation that through hardship and struggle, even at times near unto death, we live …for now …with the eagle in the tree, and our next door neighbors, and best friends and family (be they near or far), and our most beloved of fellow creatures. We can see and listen and be awed by this beautiful world. By rafts of arctic birds resting out the winter on the Chesapeake Bay. By the sight of raindrops pregnant with sunlight falling from the boom. By the sound of loons calling through fog. By the sight of my sleeping bag and pillow fluffed up and laid out with care by Bill on the coldest of nights, and the knowledge that in a little while I will be warm and safe and have some time for blessed rest.
As I write a steady rain begins to fall. I sit in our protected cockpit looking out on the world, listening to the rain tap and patter against the canvas that shelters me. The temperature this morning has risen to the mid-60s, giving a welcome reprieve from near freezing temps much of the past week. The eagle has left its tree in search of a more protected perch. My mind lingers on the sunset of yesterday. Around 4:00pm we had just anchored and I bid Bill to make haste so we could watch the sun go down. I had a feeling about this one. The sky was getting ready to share some secrets. I set out some pillows on deck and we sat for an hour as a parade of light and cloud and watery reflection marched across the horizon and consumed our every emotion and thought. Perched in a tree behind us, the eagle had also watched the scene unfold. We three watched and watched until the darkness was full upon us.
I don’ know how eagles are with the giving of thanks, but Bill and I gave all we had. For this moment and the last, and any future moments we may be privileged to have. Happy Thanksgiving to all.
I’m so grateful to all of you who have supported this journey. My thoughts are with you today and always.
Category: Almost Anywhere, Maggie May, Photography, Uncategorized, Writing Tagged: adventure, beauty, boat, circumnavigation, conservation, environment, gratitude, icw, intracoastal waterway, krista schlyer, Maggie May, memoir, nature, photography, sailboat, sailing, sunset, sv maggie may, thanksgiving, united states, Writing