Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Caught my first Mahi on the sail to Dominican Republic

Mahi Mahi, a.k.a. Dolphin fish, a.k.a. Dorado, has been my quarry this entire trip. I heard many tales about cruising sailors catching the tasty and hard fighting fish while sailing in the open Atlantic. However, I had no luck on our previous crossings. With some new lures Patrick brought me from the states, and fishing knowledge gleaned from Luke in Providenciales, I was optimistic about my chances during this last sail.

Sure enough, in the early afternoon of our second day sailing from Provo to Luperon, Dominican Republic, I hooked a huge fish. It started stripping line off the reel like nobody’s business! In the scramble to slow the boat and position myself to fight the fish, the line went slack. Whatever trophy fish was back there, it broke the hook right off the large cedar plug lure and escaped. I was a little disappointed but not deterred. I put out two lines and we resumed sailing.

Within the hour, the other reel started squealing as the drag released line and I yelled, “fish on!” We were better prepared this time and immediately let out the mainsail to slow the boat and Dana reeled in the second line. I sat back and started reeling. The prey was obviously smaller than the one that broke my lure, but still put up a valiant fight. When the great fish was close to the boat, I could see its dazzling green and yellow coloring and knew I had a Mahi. I put on some gloves and hauled it into the boat. Mahi are absolutely beautiful, especially when just caught, but they tend to lose their color after they die. I used alcohol in a spray bottle on the Mahi’s gills to end it’s suffering and got to work filleting the good sized catch. Filleting a fish while kneeling on a cockpit bench in rolling seas is no easy task, let me tell you! By the time I bagged up a few pounds of boneless fillets my fingers and knuckles were all knicked up from the sharp fillet knife. A small price to pay for the sautéed Mahi and grilled fish tacos we enjoyed over the next couple days. We even got to give some of the catch to one of our cruising buddies who helped me get my new outboard engine running a bit better.

That was the high point of the sail. What followed was a miserable night’s slog through high wind, large scary seas, and constant soakings from waves breaking into the cockpit. Soon after the sun sank below the horizon and the conditions were already miserable, I noticed Dana was teary. She explained, “I don’t like this. I’m scared.” I completely understood how she felt and wanted the whole ordeal to be over with ASAP as well. But, I also knew we were in a very seaworthy boat, and although the conditions were uncomfortable, they were not to the level of jeopardizing our safety. We donned our offshore lifejackets, turned on the autopilot and hunkered down for a long night at sea.

During the overnight of constant pounding from wind and waves, Dana felt sick but still managed to complete her shifts at the helm. If I had to do any work down in the cabin, seasickness gripped me as well. The ocean, which appeared wondrous and lovely on previous night sails, seemed treacherous and daunting that night. The wake of our boat was again filled with thousands of bioluminescent fireflies. When I looked to my left (the direction from which the waves were coming), I occasionally saw those fireflies above eye level. The cockpit is 4 feet above the water line, and my head is a few feet above that. The approaching wave, then, was at least seven feet. In the dark with no moon, you couldn’t see the waves approaching until that last second. Maybe it was a good thing we couldn’t really see what was going on out in those confused, raucous seas.

Usually, Eventyr would slide up and over the waves, but frequently a wave would dump gallons of stinging salt water right in your faces, as if out of nowhere. On multiple occasions, a wave would break over the top of our bimini (the sun cover over the top of the cockpit, which is several feet above our heads).  We motor sailed all night, since the wind direction was not right for us to sail without the engine. In the pleasant afternoon earlier that day, we sailed for several hours without the engine, although it put us several miles off course. We didn’t want to waste any time sailing out of our way overnight. We just wanted to get the trip over with as quickly as possible. Even with the combination of engine and reefed mainsail, we could hardly maintain 4 mph into the heavy seas. I kept telling Dana, “All the books say it will get calmer when we get in the wind shadow of the Dominican Republic. Don’t worry, it’ll get better soon.”

Well, it never did. I slept about an hour that night and Dana didn’t sleep much more. I constantly worried that a wave would take the dinghy, my surfboards, or our anchors right overboard. I knew I tied them down well, but the ocean was powerful and relentless with waves breaking over the bow again and again. When we finally spotted land at about 7:30 am, it was a welcomed sight, even though it took us almost four more hours through the same high seas to get to the mountainous coastline.

Land ho!

So much for our weather window! Several other boats left Provo the same morning as us, some headed for Luperon (the closest port in the Dominican Republic from Provo), others for further destinations. One boat was attempting to go all the way to Puerto Rico. Well, let me tell you, they’re all here in Luperon. No one made it further. We’ve been swapping horror stories at the bar each night. Dana was not the only crying crewmember among our group of sailboats. The consensus is that the winds were sustained at 25 mph or higher and the seas were as big as 10 to 12 feet that night. We do not want to go out in that again!

Now we’re in Luperon, which is the third world compared to the relatively clean and extremely expensive Turks & Caicos. Although trash lines the streets and rivers, we’re happy to be here. There’s a real energy in this town where small fresh produce stands and fish markets abound. Trucks drive down the narrow streets blaring music and selling plantains, bananas, mandarin oranges and mangoes out of their trunks. Dogs, cats, sheep, chickens, and even cows roam the streets. The locals are extremely friendly but poor and constantly want to help you with this or that to make some money. It’s a refreshing change to pay $7 for a nice dinner and less than $2 for a 22 oz. beer instead of the $65 I paid for a case of canned beer in Provo. I even got a haircut for less than $5!

The harbor in Luperon is well protected with dense mangroves on all sides and is filled with sailboats. Some, like us, are cruising sailboats passing through. Some are rusting hulks left by cruisers who never made it further. Some are the semi permanent homes of cruisers who stopped here months or years ago and never left. Each night at the bars, all the gringo sailors mix with the locals and everyone seems to have a good time. Dana and I are enjoying the scene so far, but eager to move on when we get the chance.

That said, the weather for moving east from Luperon is not looking favorable in the near future. The weather guru, Chris Parker, who runs a Caribbean weather forecasting website for boaters, warned that the strong winds will continue all week, only to get stronger over the weekend. We have to head due east toward Puerto Rico, which is, of course, directly into the strong prevailing trade winds. That, in conjunction with the fact that there are very few protected anchorages along the 80+ miles we have left to traverse of northern Dominican Republic coastline before crossing the treacherous Mona Passage to Puerto Rico, means that we need a number of days of calm weather to attempt the trip. Chris Parker declared that we might not be able to leave until the week of February 10th!

Dana and I are extremely perturbed by the news of being stuck in Luperon for so long. Not because we don’t like the Domincan Republic. We do! We’re upset because our friends, the Manginos, are flying into Puerto Rico from the 4th to the 10th and we were really hoping to spend time with them. I did almost all of my long runs with Mike Mangino training for several marathons and we ran together with Back On My Feet for years. The Manginos moved from Philly to Cincinnati last year, and it’s a rare chance we get to see them these days. We’ll keep a keen eye on the weather and jump at the first safe chance we get to sail on to PR.

We can’t control the weather, and neither Dana nor I want to be out in the kind of conditions we had to endure on this last crossing. Hence, we’re going to wait for good weather to make our next move. While waiting, we can rent a car to explore the Domincan Republic and enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of this vibrant country.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Proud to be a first time uncle and papa of a baby outboard!

Since Patrick and Shanley's departure, Dana and I have been delayed in Provo, Turks and Caicos waiting on repairs of the new outboard we purchased from a kind fellow cruiser. In the meanwhile, my brother Erik and his wife Danielle had their first child, Emilia Quinn Syvertsen. Dana and I are officially aunt and uncle for the first time. It was a very exciting time and we felt extremely far away here in the tropics. However, due to the miracle of technology, we were able to FaceTime with them in the hospital. We got to meet the new Syvertsen within hours of birth via mom's iPhone. I'm sure Erik and Danielle are experiencing life in a totally new way these days. Can't wait to meet Emilia!

In the meanwhile, Dana and I sparked a fantastic relationship with Luke and his wife Kathy, who are from Illinois, have a home on Provo, and a fishing boat in the South Side Marina next to us. You may recall that Luke took us fishing for wahoo with Patrick and Shanley. Well, since then they've brought us fishing twice more. We also went with them to dinner and they insisted we stay the night at their home. So, for the first time since October 19, Dana and I slept somewhere other than Eventyr. Luke and Kathy hosted us at their stunning villa overlooking the Caicos Banks. We were spoiled with our own guest "pod" with private bath. We swam in their pool and Luke and I snorkeled for conch from their dock. They have six children around our age and they both assured us they enjoyed our company and wanted to share their wonderful home. Although it was a little weird not to wake up on Eventyr, sleeping on a king size bed instead of our oddly shaped V-berth on the boat was quite luxurious. They had us stay for both breakfast and lunch before heading back to the marina! We'll miss Luke and Kathy when we go, but I'm sure we'll keep in touch.

We've met more cruisers at the marina who will head down to the Dominican Republic, where we're heading next, tomorrow. Dana and I are ready to move on. We went to the weekly fish fry last night, and it didn't have the same allure as the first time with Patrick and Shanley last week. I'm sufficiently sick of conch and ready for some fresh fruits and vegetables in the Dominican Republic.

We cleared customs today and will leave Provo bright and early tomorrow morning for the three-day trip to Luperon, Dominican Republic. We'll stop each night at anchorages along the way, so it's not a nonstop trip. During the passage, we'll traverse the Caicos Bank and then the Columbus Passage, where the cruising guides promise we'll encounter whales. We'll then make the 80-mile trip straight south across the Mouchoir Passage to Luperon. The weather looks favorable, so it should be a relatively pleasant sail/motor sail. I'm now loaded with new fishing tackle thanks to Luke and Patrick, so hopefully I'll land a nice fish along the way!

Finally, we're leaving Provo with a new outboard! We bid farewell to our previous outboard who found a new home in Davey Jones's locker and now have his little brother. Our old outboard was 6 horsepower, and our new one is 3.5 horsepower. We were never able to go that fast anyway, so the reduction in power won't be that big of a deal. On the positive side, the new outboard is lighter, and thus easier to pass up and down from our stern rail down into the dinghy, which was always a pretty harrowing task (especially when the waves were up).

It will be nice to get back out into the open ocean and onward in our travels. Next stop: Dominican Republic.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Friends in Turks & Caicos and more outboard engine trouble

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our friends Patrick and Shanley  after four days of fun and adventure. Yes, Dana and I made it on time to Turks and Caicos, actually with more than a day to spare! We left our buddy boats in Mayaguana and did a bumpy overnight motor sail down to Providenciales (Provo) last Sunday night, arriving at a marina in south Provo Monday mid day.

Patrick and Shanley got a true taste of the adventure. They got to live aboard the cramped but quaint space of Eventyr for four nights. We ate conch until we were sick of it, and we explored different Provo bars and restaurants every night. We lounged on beautiful white sandy beaches and snorkeled reefs. We dined at Coco Bistro, an unforgettable restaurant recommended by friends Dan and Brooke. Patrick and Shanley did some karaoke at Bugaloo's Conch Crawl. We even got to attend a huge fish fry party with Junkanoo dancers and a guy playing the local music, rake and scrape, with a saw and screwdriver. It was almost perfect!

I say almost because as with most aspects of this adventure, nothing works out quite the way it was planned. Patrick and Shanley stayed with us the first night at the marina and the next morning we had a pleasant three or four mile run and then fired up Eventyr’s engine to motor over to a picturesque anchorage for the night. The plan was to leave that anchorage the next day and sail over to West Caicos, an uninhabited island, where we could snorkel and fish.

This is where our outboard engine problem comes into play. Was the outboard sputtering and dying again? Was it having trouble starting? Nope, the problem involved outright losing the outboard into the deep blue sea. While towing the dinghy several miles from the marina to the anchorage over rolly seas, the outboard (which I had forgotten to tighten down), fell off the back of the dinghy. The problem is, none of us noticed until we had already anchored and Dana asked nervously, “Where’s the outboard?” Somewhere between the marina and Sapodilla Bay, that little bugger decided to go for a swim. Despite retracing our route using our chartplotter and heading out twice more to search for it, the outboard appears gone forever.

Without an outboard, we had no way of getting all of us to shore, so we had to head back to the marina for the rest of their stay. That meant no fishing from the boat, snorkeling at an uninhabited island, or sleeping at anchor. But, as fate would have it, a sailboat pulled in later that day that had an extra outboard to sell. Also, Luke, our neighbor in the marina offered to take us out on his fishing boat for wahoo fishing and snorkeling by West Caicos. In fact, the day with Luke turned out to be fantastic, even if we did only catch barracuda. Patrick decided to show his fishing prowess later that night by catching a few snapper from the dock.

It was sad to see Patrick and Shanley go. Dana and I now have to prepare for our next jump to the Dominican Republic. The outboard we are in the process of procuring has some mechanical issues we need to get worked out before we can scaddatle. Once we get to the DR, we might be able to meet back up with our buddy boats from Rum Cay and Mayaguana. We heard from some other cruisers who came into Provo that our buddies headed straight to the DR, skipping Turks and Caicos. We’ll see if we can catch up with them. It's all part of the adventure, I guess.

Friday, January 10, 2014

First overnight sail!

Before this trip began, Dana and I looked at the charts of the Caribbean and determined that no two islands we would like to visit are more than 80 miles away from one another. That meant we would never have to sail overnight. Maybe start a little before sunrise to make it by dusk, but no sailing out into the darkness of night as sunset came and went.

Well, that all changed Tuesday night. Since we’re trying to get to the Turks and Caicos Islands by the 15th when our friends Patrick and Shanley fly in, we have to make good time when we can.  Also, we can only sail south and east (the directions we will be travelling throughout the entire Caribbean) when a weather window opens, because the prevailing wind direction is directly from the southeast (A.K.A., trade winds). So, a weather window opened on Tuesday and it was good enough for us to travel close to 150 miles from Rum Cay to Mayaguana, the furthest south island in the Bahamas, without having to beat directly into a 20 knot headwind.

Our overnight sail had its ups and downs. We left Rum Cay at 5 am and motor sailed all day, because the wind was too light to sail without using a little engine power to speed us along. The sun dropped over the horizon and we kept on going right out into the open Atlantic with no land in sight. We took two hours shifts with one person at the helm and the other sleeping. The seas were calmer than our previous open ocean crossings, but not serene by any stretch of the imagination.  During the dark night, we delighted to a sky full of stars and phosphorescent creatures surfacing in the wake of our boat. When we looked down into the wake, hundreds of fireflies appeared in a sea of black. The sun finally rose as we were approaching land and we anchored in beautiful Abraham’s Bay before noon.

Sunrise on the open Atlantic Ocean
That’s not to say we didn’t have some excitement during this crossing. Some time after dark while sleeping down below, I was startled awake by the engine making a loud whining sound as if the propeller was spinning though sand. I ran up into the cockpit and Dana was as shocked as me. “I don’t know what’s going on, but we’re losing power!” she yelled. The engine didn’t die so we put it in neutral. We were both pretty freaked out. There wasn’t enough wind to sail to our destination and we were 30 miles or so from the nearest island (which happened to be uninhabited with no good anchorages). I was worried something might be caught on our propeller but I was not about to dive in under way, at night, in the middle of the ocean. We tentatively put the engine back in gear and it seemed to be working ok. We motored the rest of the way at lower RPMs and I checked the propeller once we got to our anchorage. I think we must have run over a patch of sea grass or something, which got chopped away by the prop, because nothing was stuck in there when I looked. Whatever we ran over, it was a scary few minutes.

I woke again during a later sleeping shift at two in the morning to Dana squawking excitedly. I ran into the cockpit and she was smiling and laughing pointing at the starboard cockpit bench. There, on one of our Crazy Creek camping chairs was a flying fish. She explained that it flew right into the cockpit. We see flying fish all the time, and I was wondering if one would ever fly into the boat. Well, there was my answer. I saw The Life of Pi before we left, and there’s a similar scene in that movie, only with hundreds of flying fish landing in the boat instead of just one. Flying fish make great bait, but Dana would hear nothing of it. We threw the little guy back over board and went on with our sail.

The excitement of our 29-hour sail was not the only thing we’ve been up to since our last post in Georgetown. We made it out of picture perfect “chicken harbor” on January 3rd after a fun several days. In addition to Junkanoo, we were there for New Years Eve. We attended a New Years Eve party on the beach thrown by cruising sailors in a thatched roof tiki hut they built. Then, Dana and I dinghied into town for a nice dinner and new years festivities. We met a couple guys, Markus and Werner, from Switzerland who just arrived from a transatlantic crossing the day before. Their friend Judy flew in to join them, and the five of us partied the night away. By the way, who knew expired flares could be so fun? The next night, they had us aboard their large, steel hull sailboat for fondue.

Dana and I hiked, swam, and re-provisioned in Georgetown, but had to be on our way with the next weather window.

Eventyr front and center!
We motor sailed in light winds the 60 miles to Rum Cay on the 3rd. Unlike Georgetown, where we were welcomed by dolphins, a fish on our line, and several calm anchorages, Rum Cay had a different initial feel. Coming into the “marina,” we had to visually navigate around dangerous coral heads because the channel markers had all washed away. Upon tying up to the rickety dock, we looked down to see six or seven large sharks circling the boat. Two other cruising sailboats also arrived from Georgetown less than an hour before and helped us with our dock lines. They assured us they were only nurse sharks, but the locals later told us they were bull and lemon sharks attracted to the docks because fishermen clean their fish there. I think I remember from Shark Week, on the Discovery Channel, that bull sharks are responsible for more attacks on humans than any other sharks. The missing boards in the dock made tying up the lines that much more menacing, especially when you looked down between the missing boards to see a six foot shark directly below you! I put marina in quotes because this “marina” has not been open for well over a year, although cruisers are still allowed to tie up to the dock if they’re prepared to deal with adversity. In addition to the unmaintained docks, no water or electricity are available and it’s a mile walk into the small settlement.

Rum Cay itself is an interesting little island. Formerly thriving with a large salt production operation, the operation is now shut down and only about 30 people live on the island. Tourism from cruising sailors was important, but two hurricanes in a row slammed the island and destroyed the marina. The friendly owner, Robbie, has not been able to reopen despite valiant attempts. The whole situation is kind of sad.

Dana and I had beers at one of the small bars on Rum Cay and we played dominoes with the locals. The mail boat hadn’t come in weeks due to bad weather, so they ran out of beer after we’d only had one and they were almost out of rum! The one small market in town was in rough shape as well, with empty shelves and almost nothing for sale. We had dinner at the one restaurant in town, where we were assured there would be food available. The owner, Ruby, opened just for Dana, two other cruisers and me, and prepared a home cooked Bahamian meal of “peas and rice” (a local dish made with a type of bean, not peas), fried wahoo, fried chicken, salad, steamed vegetables, and cake with ice cream. It was fantastic.

The other boats in Rum Cay were Canadian, and we all ended up getting along famously. We had sundowner drinks on Jeff and Debbie’s catamaran, Sea Sparrow, and we had them over for cocktails on Eventyr. I snorkeled a couple times looking for dinner, but didn’t see any lobsters and the fish were too quick for me. I guess I need more practice. I did, however, find five or six conch while out for a snorkel with Dana, Jeff, and Debbie. Pierre and Jeff (a different Jeff), French Canadians, knew how to extract and prepare the conch and all the cruisers sat down to a delicious fresh conch salad on Pierre’s 42 foot Beneteau, Lady Ella. Rum Cay ended up being a stopping point for us four sailboats and we’re all heading south. We left Rum Cay the same day and arrived at Mayaguana the same morning as a flotilla of sorts. Eventyr is the smallest, and slowest of the group so we left a couple hours before the others. We didn’t see or hear from the other boats at all during the 29 hour sail, but it was comforting to know they were out there if something bad happened (for example if our engine died).

Note the missing boards in the dock

Cruisers look out for one another. A good example was something that happened late in the afternoon the day before we departed Rum Cay for Mayaguana. The four buddy boats anchored out for the night (to avoid that nasty, disheveled, dangerous dock and to skip navigating the unmarked channel at 5 am), and Dana and I dinghied to shore for some beach time, one last look at the internet which was available at a bar, and possibly a beer or two (since the mail boat finally arrived the night before).

Before our beers even arrived we heard a frantic call on the VHF, “If anyone has a dinghy in the water, we’ve run aground near the marina and the tide is falling. We need help!” Dana and I radioed back that we had a dinghy and we’d be over in a minute. The dinghies from two of our buddy boats came as well with their larger, more powerful outboard engines. Vision Quest was stuck hard in the sand and the captain was gunning his engine to no avail. The two Jeffs tied lines from the backs of their dinghies to the top of Vision Quest’s mast, Vision Quest raised all her sails and the captain again gunned the engine. It was a pretty amazing sight, a sailboat with full sails, heeled over catching the wind, but staying completely still. The hope was that the boat would lean over enough for the keel to pop out of the sand. After several unsuccessful tries, Vision Quest suddenly lurched forward and sprung free of her sandy trap. However, now she was under full sails heading into the coral strewn unmarked channel. Luckily, they made it out safely and anchored near us for the night. We just met up with Vision Quest again in Mayaguana and it turns out they broke part of their keel in the process.

Now we’re stuck in Mayaguana waiting for another weather window so we can make it across the Caicos Passage to the Turks and Caicos (which is less than 50 miles away). Abraham’s Bay is another small settlement without much going on. I think Dana and I have already met most of the residents, as we went into town for dinner and drinks last night, filled our water jugs this morning, and went for runs. I’m confident the winds will shift enough for us to get the Providenciales to meet Patrck and Shanley before the 15th. In the meanwhile, I’ll hone my spear fishing skills and I’m sure we’ll have a few sundowner cocktails with the other cruisers anchored around us. We’re all waiting for the same weather window again.