Saturday, December 14, 2013

Passage to Panamá

[Kyle]It was early afternoon when the wind finally backed from east-southeast to east-northeast. We pulled up the anchor and said goodbye to the beautiful blue waters of the Caicos Bank. Within minutes, we were off soundings in over a thousand meters of water of that unreal, offshore color.

It didn’t take long before the swell caught up with us once we were in deep water. Begonia was soon rolling in a lurchy, unpredictable way that made having a good handhold a requirement. We passed within eight miles of Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas in the first half of the night, but never saw it since it was all too low to be seen over our three-mile horizon.

In the gap between Inagua and the big island of Hispaniola, the wind and seas increased. The forecast called for decreasing winds both with the passage of time and with progress south, so we kept flying plenty of sail.

It turned out to be a pretty stressful night. We had yet to readjust to watch keeping and the motion of the open sea and we were constantly worried about having too much sail up for the boisterous conditions. Every now and then, the boat would roll a little too far or an errant wave would send warm, salty spray into the cockpit, reminding us that this was not normal benign sailing. My stomach was in a knot of worry almost the whole time.

This continued for most of my midnight to six a.m. watch while Maryanne tried in vain to sleep below, wondering just what was going on out there. Finally, at about four o’clock, the wind picked up even more and things were starting to get a little out of hand. We were regularly surfing into the mid teens. I was watching the autopilot struggling to maintain control of the overpowered boat. We would slew and roll, the wheel would spin way over to one direction while the boat continued to stubbornly go the other way for a few seconds too long for my comfort. It was time to reef. {Maryanne: It was so hard to sail by so many amazing places in our rush to get to Panama.. especially knowing that we only had to work on the boat when we got there. Jamaica especially was calling to me and so close I was so tempted to just sail over during Kyle's sleep time. One day I hope to get there!}

The jib had already been rolled up to about half of its size. This was easy enough to do while sailing downwind, but now the big mainsail needed reduced, which required a turn upwind as it can only be raised or lowered if it’s streaming back from the mast. I waited for a lull and then made the turn. The change was immediate between running from the wind and waves and punching into them. The wind was now howling loudly, accompanied by the machine-gun snapping of the flogging sails. The waves that had been sending occasional spray into the cockpit were now sending horizontal sheets of water across the boat. My nice, dry clothes were instantly soaked.

With the tops of the waves crashing over me, I had to make a make a real concerted effort to stay at the mast and do everything methodically and properly instead of rushing through the job and fleeing back into the cockpit. I didn’t want to have to come back again to have to redo or finish anything.

When I was sure I was done and had double-checked everything, I returned to the helm and bore off back to our downwind course. Suddenly, everything was relative peace again. It was still uncomfortable, but the boat was easier to control and I no longer had the constant worry about having too much sail up.

When Maryanne came on watch, I went to bed fully expecting it to be too uncomfortable for me to sleep. I was so tired that the first hour or so came anyway. I awoke to noticeably more comfortable conditions and the sound of Maryanne shaking out the reefs. As soon as we entered the Windward Passage, the forty-five mile gap between Haiti and Cuba, the high mountains of Hispaniola blocked the wind and we quickly coasted way down into the two-knot range. The sails slatted back and forth uselessly as we rolled back and forth in the decreasing swell. There was a fairly strong current through the gap, so our progress was actually not as bad as it felt in the still heat.

As we drifted along, we spent perhaps half of the time within sight of at least one ship or another shuttling between Panamá and the Windward Passage. We passed our last land before crossing the Caribbean Sea, Navarro Island, in the wee hours. In the moonless sky, I was only able to make it out as a low silhouette against the stars. I kept waiting to see the beam of the lighthouse on the southern side, but it never became visible. I gave it a couple of sweeps with the radar just to make sure it correlated with the chart, which gave me a measure of peace of mind on a dark night.

Albatross join us for a short while

There was an almost complete lack of trade winds until we were nearly two hundred miles south of Hispaniola, making our progress frustratingly slow. At least it was nice and warm all of the time. We also had occasional entertainment from flocks of albatross and pods of dolphins that seemed to be following the same schools of fish. The dolphin would always seem willing to take a break to come over and play in our bow waves. One morning, we were barely moving in a very light wind. The wind shifted and the mainsail backed, overpowering the rudders with no flow over them. I was helplessly spinning around in circles trying to get back in control when a pod of about ten dolphins came by to play. They zigzagged back and forth and circled a few times before deciding that we weren’t any fun. I finally got the boat moving just as they gave up and left.

Kyle gets to photograph the dolphins

Once the trade winds returned, we were treated to regular visits, mostly right after sunrise. The sails filled and started quietly pulling. We went hours and hours without needing to make anything other than the most minor adjustments to them. While most of the ships that presented a conflict were pretty good about altering course (technically, we have right of way while in deep water, because a sailboat is less manoeuvrable, having some directions we can’t go at all), a few of the others either didn’t see us (were they looking?) or quite correctly figured it was in our best interest to stay out of their way. When we dodged them, we were usually able to leave the sails in less efficient trim until they were past and we could resume our original course.

As we made progress south, the days were hot and the nights were pleasantly warm and filled with all of the stars that are only visible far from cities. I would note every night when I started my watch that Orion had climbed slightly higher in the sky since the previous night and Polaris, the North Star was getting lower. By the time we neared Panamá, our masthead navigation light would be scribbling an erratic path right through the center of Orion. Polaris was getting low enough to have a slightly red tinge and was having increasing trouble clearing clouds on the horizon.

Since we hadn’t been to a decent store since Beaufort, over a month ago, Maryanne has been increasingly making worried noises about running out of some types of food, particularly fresh produce. It has been completely unnoticeable to me. She continues to turn out an impressive variety of delicious dishes. We seem to be in no danger of degenerating into an, “Aw, rice and beans again!” mode. All of our various food storage areas still look full to me.

{Maryanne: We were 8 days and sea and with a quite uneventful sail (thankfully) - the days roll into one on such a passage, but we did find early on on the passage a random floating boat fender. I was especially proud of myself as I like to keep a good lookout in the full expectation (goodness knows why) that I will sight and save a shipwrecked sailor in a liferaft... Spotting the floating fender at least made me feel that I'd see that life raft if it was ever out there. Otherwise it is a series of sunsets and sunrises, broken by the occasional exciting visits of the wildlife. Nice!}

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