Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Caribbean island cruise continues.

In our previous lives we would have thought ourselves very fortunate to go on holiday once in our lives for a couple of weeks to a Caribbean island. This year we have spent 3 weeks in Barbados, 2 weeks in St Lucia, 1 week in the Grenadines, 2 weeks in Martinique, 2 weeks in Martinique, and 2 weeks in Antigua and Barbuda. Our carbon footprint to travel to these destinations has been very small indeed, and our cost of living here is miniscule compared to hotel stayers. We have not been robbed, mugged or been pestered by boat boys,  so it's been a brilliant year so far and is not over yet. In the Med you have to pull into harbour for the winters so you lose 4-6 months of the cruising year. Up here we can just keep moving, as long as we leave the Caribbean for hurricane season. No rest for the wicked!!

St Martin/St Maarten
17 Apr 2012 18 02.7N 063 05.7W
Anchored on French side, inside Simpson Bay Lagoon.
St Martin is the smallest island in the world to be divided between 2 countries.
We entered on the Dutch side, under the Dutch bridge into the lagoon, but then motored straight across the charted border line to anchor on the French side, under the charmingly named Witch's Tit. Here it is free to anchor and to check in, over there it is not free. View is pretty much the same.
The island is a weird hybrid. Plenty of lost souls go aground here, or run small businesses serving the needs of cruisers and paying no tax. Health care is free here too, as the north side is part of the France and therefore the EU.
We spent too much time here, doing the rounds of the 3 huge chandleries, buying cheap food on the French side, and cheap alcohol on the Dutch duty free side. The french supermarkets were a good place to stock up with dried fruit, nuts, toiletries, cheese, pasta – enough to last until the USA. A weekly flea market was an ideal place to pick up charts of the US and Bahamas.
There are no physical borders between the 2 sides of the island. Buses run right around the island. It really is most bizarre.
We bought antifouling here (ABC, used by the US Navy, 4 gallons for US$680). You can buy stuff here that is banned everywhere else.
St Martin has a great music scene, lots of local live music, and Stu did a couple of open mike nights, and even bought a microphone for his guitar so he can be amped up. Too many happy hour bars for your health though.
We picked up a second hand 8HP outboard. Stu seems to be having a mid-life crisis about the need for speed in our little dinghy.
Antigua Classic Week.
20 April 2012

Having blown out an opportunity to crew aboard Storm Vogel, as we couldn't see a weather window to get back to Antigua, suddenly one opened up and we were able to sail back 'uphill' 120 miles to arrive the day before the racing. Unfortunately Ian, the skipper, had filled all his places mostly with young talent and totty, so we were relegated to observing and photographing the race fleet. This was a big disappointment but way less tiring. We watched our friend Phil (Miss Molly) exhaust himself on the mainsheet position all week, and we loitered and enjoyed the free entertainment and hospitality of Antigua week, and drooled all over the lovingly varnished yachts.
British Virgin Islands.
25 April 2012
The morning SSB radio net was still going strong but we felt like stragglers as most of the other boats were well 'ahead' of us. We had a lovely 'downhill' sail, and I tied Stu to the mast to avoid the temptation of stopping at St Martin again, in case we never left.
LAT 18d 29.4N LONG 064d 22.8W
We went all the way to Virgin Gorda and checked in at Gun Creek, a new check-in post – we were back on British soil again!
The BVI's are a very popular charter base and with good reason, lots of lovely bays, short sails between stops, cheap rum and endless sunshine. But, other than inflated food prices, the downside is that many bays are full of mooring buoys which pleases charterers on holiwols, but not cruisers on a a budget. It is possible to anchor at the edges of the mooring fields, but it obviously reduces your choice of good holding, good shelter and reasonable depth of water. Still we could enjoy 10 days in the BVIS for about £2000 less than the charterers and a minimal carbon footprint too – very little fossil fuel suffered for us to get here!
Jost Van Dyke Island, Great Harbour
Tempted by the famous watering hole of Foxy's, which everyone seemed to know about, we ventured ashore and had a very overpriced and over-rated meal and a few rum punches, with Clare and Mike from Siga Siga. One time spit and sawdust beach-sailors bar now turned tourist attraction.
On Siga's advice we went over to:
Cane Garden Bay
Tortola, 27 April

This anchorage ticks all the boxes, not too deep, not too many moorings, pretty good shelter, fantastic wildlife, clear water, excellent snorkelling nearby, rum factory ashore and low-key bars with locals and live music. Does it get any better than this? We chilled out and watched the pelicans diving for their dinner, until Clare decided we should walk to the bay next door, where there is even better snorkelling. It did look like a big hill from the anchorage, but appearances didn't quite prepare us for the gradient or the length. Luckily we were quickly offered a lift in the back of someone's truck, which we gratefully accepted, and snuggled up to the greasy spare wheel. As we got higher and higher, we wondered if we would ever make the journey back without a similar friendly local to assist. Well, we had an excellent swim and we just about made it up the hill to get home, with plenty of puff stops to admire the views.

We had a little lunch excursion to nearby Sandy Cay, just a few miles out of Tortola, with a wet and bouncy dinghy landing and a walk around the nature path on the tiny paradise island.
All too soon, it was time to move on, and we waved Siga Siga off as they were headed south to Grenada for hurricane season. We went back to Jost Van Dyke to check out at Great Harbour, and took advantage of sundowners at the Soggy Dollar Bar in White Bay, another beach bar making too much of it's reputation, but with very acceptable views.

The other Virgin Islands and visa issues.
There are 3 groups of islands, British, US and Spanish. The USVI's are full of Americans on cruise ship and cheap rum-fuelled holiday-makers -like Benidorm with snorkelling. You do need a US visa to go there by boat (we had ours from NZ already) and don't even think of landing there by boat if you haven't got one – you will be fined big-time. The only way around this ( at this moment in time) is to leave the boat in the BVI's and go by ferry to the USVI's and you can get a 90 day multiple entry visa, then go back and get your boat. Whether this works or not, is down to the officer of the day, so best to get a proper 10 yr visa at an American embassy beforehand.
We decided that we would have enough American culture this coming summer, so we bypassed the US islands and went to Culebra, a part of Puerto Rico or the Spanish Virgin Islands. Well, you have to forgive our ignorance, but we were about to discover that the only thing Spanish about these islands is the language they speak. They have been owned by the USA since the Spanish-American war of 1898, they are all bilingual and USA citizens, though not a state so they cannot vote. The same visa issues apply here, as to the USVI's and the USA.
Ensenada Honda, Culebra, Puerto Rico.
3 May 2012
We anchored in Culebra and prepared to go ashore for the first time in US waters, with our new shiny American visas in our passports. The first challenge, is that the very first thing you must do is phone Customs and Border Protection (CBP)on a toll-free number posted on the public dock to tell them you have arrived. We phoned beforehand from the BVI's but they DO NOT WANT TO know about you until you arrive. This is all very well, but we don't have an American phone, most European phones don't work on their network and there are no public phone boxes. We'd had a heads-up about this from the SSB net, so we went to the infamous Dinghy Dock bar and asked very nicely if we could borrow their phone while we had a drink (well it is a toll-free number). It takes a while, as they want to know all sorts of things about you, just short of your inside leg measurement. They will tell you what to do next, likely to be that you should go to the airport in the morning to complete check-in formalities, with boat papers in hand.
So next morning, off we went on the 20 minute walk to the airstrip. The CBP officers were exceptionally polite and helpful with the form filling. We were told to list our ships stores – which could have taken us all day. We asked what they really wanted to know about – mangos from the USVIs and tobacco, were their biggest cause for concern. So our list started NO TOBACCO and NO MANGOS, and then a brief list of stuff like eggs, cheese, salami, fresh meat, and spirits, wine and beer. They were very happy with this, and we were ecstatic that no-one was going to come to our boat and search it, confiscating all our french cheese.
It costs $19 for a Cruising Permit for one year to cruise the USA (even if you leave, go to the Bahamas, and enter again) and means that you should not have to clear customs in each port or pay entrance fees anywhere else – however, you are obliged to phone CBP whenever you move within the US, usually state to state, but from anchorage to anchorage in the north, which is a real pain.
Bizarrely it costs more ($36)to get a permit if you come from USVI's.
You do get a white card (I-94)with your B2 visa in your passport while in Puerto Rico/Culebra, and have to surrender this when you check out for the Bahamas – you get another one on entrance to the USA again. It's worth doing this, so that your 6 month stay in the USA starts from later in the year.
We passed a very pleasant week in Culebra, joining the local hippies that have drifted there and stayed. It hosts an odd bunch of mad dropouts, but is a delightful little island with world-class snorkelling in crystal water. We braved the heat and cycled the whole island to explore the other snorkel sites.
We would have liked to have spent more time in Culebrita and the main island of Puerto Rico, but were running out of time as ever, and so we checked out and set off to the Bahamas.

Note on Turks and Caicos Islands.
As of this year, it costs $50US to check in, $50 check out, for up to one week. If you stay more than one week, it costs $300. This is the same price to cruise the whole of the Bahamas for a year, which has a lot more islands, so many thrifty cruisers voted with their keels this year and bypassed the Turks and Caicos - we didn't have time to do them justice at any rate.
This was the last down-tradewind trip for us this year, taking just over 4 days and 500 miles from Culebra. The Bahamas mark the transition from tropics to northern latitute sailing. We aimed for the most upwind island with check in facilities, dropping behind the reef of Mayaguana to anchor.
Mayaguana 13 May 2012
Anchored Abrahams Bay 22 21N 072 59W

It takes a lot of getting used to, much of the Bahamas is little more than 3-4m deep, so the bottom is very close to the bottom of the boat, and there are lots of poorly charted coral heads that grow up like stalacmites – with sharp pointy bits best avoided by boat bottoms. You can see the shallow water from afar on Google maps. It makes a real purty colour.
Bahamas navigation involves one of us standing out on the bow, looking ahead to ensure we don't stray into sharp or shallow bits – its a bit hot out there in the sun too. You are supposed to travel with the sun overhead so that you can see down into the water without reflections, so ideally you need to be in, with your anchor down by 4pm each day. This is much easier said than done, if you need to cover a number of miles in a day between safe stops.
At Mayaguana the sun beat down on us as we arrived and we could easily get our eye in to spot the coral heads, so we threaded our way in. The only protection from the sea is behind the shallow reef, which is not so shallow at high water, so conditions can change throughout the day with the height of tide. At high water with the wind from the south you are anchored at sea, in shallow rolling waves!
It took us two attempts to visit the customs office, as their hours are erratic to say the least. The hardest bit is handing over the US$310 – the paperwork was very straightforward, and even included a fishing license automatically.
Mayaguana is a one horse town, but a useful port of entry.

Conception Island.
Anchored 23 51N 075 07W
Absloutely georgeous place, with a good anchorage, sandy beach. It is a national park so nothing ashore. Had a fun day kayaking up the river with Yindee Plus in their dinghy.

Shark - only a baby

We saw a beautiful 55' yacht being salvagedoff the north of the island. The owners had set a waypoint into their chartplotter a few hundred meters off a reef – then trusted it instead of his eyes. They went straight up on the reef and holed the boat. The salvagers did all they could to refloat it, but the pumps were not coping. If they let it sink on the reef there is a humungous fine to pay, for polluting the national park, so the boat was towed out to deep water and allowed to sink. We were weeping at the waste of all that gear on the boat, now at the bottom of the sea – thousands of pounds worth of winches, rigging, hardware. We wished we'd had half an hour on that boat with a couple of screwdrivers.
Georgetown, Exumas
This is the main town of the chain of islands called the Exumas.
23 31N 075 44.57W
On the way in we discovered how inaccurate most charts are for the Bahamas. Not much of the $300 check-in fee goes towards naviagation aids, and those that exist are weird and wonderful shapes and colours. Everything is low lying and there are few transit markers so navigation is tricky. We were plagued by overcast weather the whole time we were in the Bahamas. Even on the bow of the boat with polarised sunglasses and crystal clear water, it is impossible to tell 1m from 10m of water. We gently nudged a rock off the entrance to Georgetown, no harm done, but it made us nervous at all times.
(For going back to the Bahamas we have acquired Explorer charts, NV charts are also good)
Georgetown was a good stop for laundry, diesel and a supermarket. Whilst cheaper than the outer islands, it is a lot more expensive than other places so far. I found some bargain artesan parmesan for $3 a wedge. I think it was supposed to be $30, and mispriced, so I snaffled a bunch of them. Less of a bargain was a case of 24 cans of beer -$65 US.
All stocked up we continued on up the island chain.
Normans Pond Cay
Never again will I anchor somewhere with 'pond' in the name. Think hot, low lying, mosquito and noseeum infested swamp. Our mosquito nets were no match for these guys and we spent an extremely uncomfortable night scratching and swatting. In the morning the bed was covered in tiny dead bodies.

Big Majors Spot/Staniel Cay
Anchored 24 10.6N 076 26.7W

This is a really popular spot for a big bunch of cruisers, and we came here to shelter from a pretty nasty blow going through.
The little town used to have a pig problem. The pigs made the town smelly and attracted flies. So someone suggested they deport the pigs to their own desert island where they could smell as much as they like. The pigs flourished, the cruisers feed the pigs their organic rubbish, and the pigs entertain the cruisers. Rubbish, pig, smell, and fly problem solved – since the pigs are so keen on cruiser rubbish they swim out to you as you approach, so they are regularly bathed too.

A beach party, BBQ, pot luck was arranged for one evening, a bring-your-own beer, food to share, firewood, and an instrument if you have one.
Some pigs came too, they were not on the menu .

Arriving with firewood
Cruisers make their own fun...there was not a green vegetable on show in the pot luck though, fresh provisions are few and far between and cruisers closely guarded their last few green things.
In the local shops here for 2
pints milk, 1 loaf of horrible sliced bread and 12 eggs - $15 US ! Come prepared with bilges bulging.

Swimming and snorkelling opportunities were all around. Nearby was Thunderball grotto – used in and named after the James Bond film. You dive down into a cave filled with over-friendly fishes. There are very strong currents so you have to swim at slack water, or risk ending up out at sea without a paddle.
Can you spot Ray the ray?
Rays and nurse sharks swim all around the boat, and are unfazed by swimming humans.

Warderick Wells Cay, Exumas.
Another national park. We took a mooring for $20/night. It is possible to anchor about 1 mile away and dinghy in, but the weather was uninspiring, so we splashed out for a change.
The island is very natural and has some walking trails and caves to explore. In the water there are coral gardens for snorkelling. We are cursing Olympus and the not so waterproof camera – it would be great to have some underwater shots.
Kids and caves

walking trails
I swam against the strong currents to stay in one place and watched an enormous lobster go visiting his friends cave to cave. Neither he nor his friends would survive outside the park for long. The park is a no take zone, so the wildlife is special and big. At one point a 10' shark swam right underneath me. Despite having been told numerous times that they are harmless, I shot 6' out of the water and screamed SHARK. So did the big fearless guys next to me. Warderick Wells sports one of the most beautiful beaches we have seen so far. Incredible turquoise bath water.

Highborne Cay
24 42N 76 49.8W
More motoring between the islands. Having to move 30 – 40 miles in a day, and to arrive while the sun is still high, means that the engine gets used a lot more than we would like.
More very impressive snorkelling, crystal clear water and lots of fishes. We took it in turns to stay in the dinghy while the other swam, so that the currents couldn't take us too far away from our transport. When you are swimming on your own, you often turn around to see a malevolent looking barracuda stalking you.
Can't anyone make an underwater camera that doesn't leak?

A friends mooring. 25 04.5N 077 18.7W
We never intended to visit Nassau as it is a pit compared to the rest of the Bahamas – and it is where the cruise ships come to.
But it was a good opportunity to at last catch up with our radio net cruiser friends – we are always bringing up the rear – and give moral support to Pete and Kourtney on Norna. They were having horrible problems with their diesel engine, only 100 miles from the end of their 3 year cruise and their home port.
We had a great time with Yindee Plus, Innamorata, Norna, Tactical Directions and some new shorebased friends, Ken and Sheila, ex cruisers who have gone aground in Nassau.
We took on more fuel here, what gas guzzlers we are. $5.40/gallon. 89P/litre

Green Bay/Rose Island 4June 2012
anchored 25 06.1N 77 11.W
After sitting out another batch of bad weather, we headed to Kens favourite weekend beach – Green Bay, bit of a misnomer, it is anything but green and no roses on Rose Island. We had a great musical evening aboard Tony's catamaran Tactical Directions, the perfect venue for deck lounging of an evening.

Time is ticking by now, and 2 tropical storms have formed and gone up the US coast before the start of storm season on 1 June. Nervously listening to the weather info every day. Not much in the way of free internet here, not even in the bars and cafes ashore in the bigger towns.

Royal Island
anchored 25 30.92N 076 50.8W
A tiny 'hurricane hole' anchorage. Bet it would be very busy if a storm did threaten.
Looks like someone started to build a resort ashore, then forgot what they were doing after the portacabins arrived. Glad they did too. Having lots of thunder and lightening every evening now. Skies look very sinister.

The Abacos. Bahamas
Another bunch of islands, with world-class snorkelling on the reefs. Can be hard to find information on the diving and snorkelling sites, as the dive shops like to keep that information to themselves.
Sandy Cay
26 24.2N 076 59.6W
Incredible snorkelling area, crammed with sealife. Spending every possible moment in the water. This is our favourite snorkel site so far.

A charming little harbour, though a bit twee and made pretty for tourists. Fascinating lighthouse with excellent example of British precision engineering.

No anchoring in here, so we took a mooring ball. $15 – 20/night. Someone unofficial comes to collect the fee from the boat.
This is another 'hurricane hole' and plenty of people stay here all through the season. Just the other side of the houses in the photo is the full fetch the Atlantic ocean - it would be gnarly on a bad day.

Man o War cay
26 35.9N 077 00.7W, anchored
Caught up with Andrew and Clare on Eye candy for a proper dive, but strong currents made us abort at the last moment. Stu used the last of the air to scrub the bottom of the boat yet again. We are fouling up within a few days each time. The antifouling we put on in Turkey last year has fallen off and been rubbed off in just over a year – we usually get 3 years.
Andrew is always watching the weather and carefully studying the forecasts. He alerted us to a short weather window for heading up to the USA. It would only be a short one, but we were all ready to make the dash and be in closer proximity to safe harbours if a hurricane formed. There's no need to check out of the Bahamas, so we were not delayed by officialdom and could just leave. Once in the USA you send your paperwork back to the Bahamas to prove that you left.

North bound to the USA . 11 June 2012
Everyone has heard of the gulf stream and its north track up the US coast, heading offshore at Cape Hatteras to cross over to bathe England in balmy seas. We imagined a wide belt of water moving north like a magic carpet. But in reality it is a thin piddle, not very wide at all. Ideally we would have headed west until we were in the flow and rode it north up the coast, but each evening violent thunderstorms were travelling up it, being fuelled by the warm water. The storms were very active. The stream changes position all the time. Passage weather gives a 3 day forecast of its position ( we didn't know that at the time)


So we headed north west just outside the stream instead. Here we found infuriating adverse currents. We carefully watched the weather forecasts while at sea, and our slot was getting shorter and shorter before the next storm was due to come through. We entered Charleston after 450 miles and tied up at the marina as the ugliest storm clouds we'd ever seen formed and swirled over the city. It looked just like the stuff on those National Geographic weather programs.