Goodbye USA: extracting to the Bahamas

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Totem has left the building USA, and all is right with our world. We stayed months longer than planned stateside. It honed my appreciaPinterest boat buildings ocean floridation for how the sea has changed us. The happy family, photographed above on North Bimini’s beach, is glad to be back!

Final weeks in Florida were a little frantic, but Fort Lauderdale was a great place to stage for departure. It’s home to a commercial stretch literally named Marine Mile, and I’m pretty sure any boat-related product or service you could want is available there. We had great service from JT Halden’s watermaker shop, picked up quality media at Bluewater Books & Charts, ordered obscure Yanmar parts from Compete Yacht Services, and refueled during jaunts with an mouthwatering $4.95 Cuban sandwich (platanos extra). The Strataglass factory where I picked up our new dodger clears is there, as is McDonald Hardware (a family-owned hometown hardware store that has everything boaters need, and skips the “marine markup”) – I nearly lost Jamie in the narrow aisles!

We called Rogers Marine Services to give our Yanmar a checkup. John Rogers came recommended by friends who cruise their beautiful Florida-based Huckins powerboat, Cortado. John was GREAT and not just because he told us the engine was in good shape. Besides being an excellent diesel mechanic with a talent for clear explanations, he’s a USCG 1600 ton master / delivery skipper; he “gets” cruisers and our needs. FLL-bound boats: reach John at (954) 309-1004.

It was also a great time for me to work with Pam Wall on our upcoming Cruising Women seminar at the Annapolis boat show next month (just a few places left!). Pam is an icon in family cruising with tremendous experience, as well as an incredibly giving and helpful human who goes out of her way to make sure cruisers passing through her hometown of Fort Lauderdale find whatever they need. I’m grateful we met and felt that mutual “click” at the Annapolis show last fall.

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Pretty sure the dolphin was showing off! Species, anyone?

Not all of the extraction process was as enjoyable. It became plain that we had to replace our battery bank, which is a little painful (eased by our friend John, and some muscle from Niall and Mike on Gromit). We were generally stretched thin: taking on more in everyday life, because we had the opportunity and because we could. But I wouldn’t trade a single one of the things we did, from presenting at a Miami sailing club to time with new friends and memorable meetups with people we’d been in touch with over the years. But I did miss, and crave, our simpler life as cruisers.

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Four batteries off, four batteries on, nearly 200 lbs PER BATTERY. Yikes.

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You can only feel sorry for the officer dedicated to “protect and serve” who must issue laundry reprimands.

The clear sign that it was time to go was when a marine police officer stopped by Totem and told us to take our laundry down from the lifelines. City ordinance, you know, can’t be hanging it out! It’s not enforced unless reported, but a resident in one of the multi-million dollar homes fronting the anchorage had called us in. There are a whole host of things wrong there, but the benefits of Lake Sylvia’s anchorage outweighed any pettiness around this event: it’s free, a great Publix is walking distance from dinghy landing for provisioning, and Marine Mile is just a Lyft ride away. We simply finished drying those clothes spread on deck instead of fluttering in the breeze and were happy that a weather window had opened for us to leave.

Raising anchor at first light and sent off with a cheer from Jim, calling out from overhead on the 17th street bridge, Totem pointed into the Atlantic…and early start to help ensure enough light for the necessary eyeball navigation on arrival in Bimini.

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Just offshore: replicas of the Nina and the Pinta! They’re headed to Jupiter, FL this week.

Totem blog postIt is literally just a day trip from the Florida coast to the Bahamas. The short distance is treated with respect because the Gulf Stream must be crossed, and it can run several knots. That sets up the possibility for some truly nasty conditions when wind opposes the flow of current. It’s also the first time many boaters bring their vessel into a foreign country. Just two reasons why people make a big deal out of it, considering it’s about 50 miles away!

Patience is a virtue when waiting out winter systems, but we had a mellow day with calm seas and transited from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini was a mere nine hours. As we departed, Pam’s sister—a photographer and graphic artist—turned her talent and lens toward the ocean inlet for a beautiful shot of Totem. Thank you Wendy!

We would like to have made it further east, but yet another northerly wind forecast loomed and we didn’t feel like tackling the shallows of the Bahamas bank in poor conditions. Waking to squally skies and rain, it felt like a good choice to have stayed put. The anchorage we tucked into at the far end of the channel into North Bimini utterly lacked aesthetic appeal, but the recently dredged harbor-in-construction had great depth and a very sticky mud bottom…two things that can be hard to come by in the Bahamas. Clearance was friendly and efficient; one of the easiest examples of international clearance I can remember.

What the wind DID do is give us a great chance to truly road test a new design for clothes pins (pegs, clips, whatever you call them). With breeze solidly in the 30 knot range, we put up a heavy fleece blanket to get aired out, snapped on the FixClips, … and, well, check it out!

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DSC05103The way that blanket whipped around (and it did, ALL DAY), the FixClips had a thorough test. These fit variable widths, so you can use them on thin lifelines or fat stainless pipe; they have a simple locking mechanism that clamps them on tight. We were sent a few to try out last year, and I know they’re great in normal conditions…now we know they truly rock for high winds too (OK, so the Swedish manufacturer has a good demo video too). Our normal clothes pins wouldn’t stand up to what we put the FixClips through; we’d have lost pins, or laundry, or both. The only downside: they are bulkier and cost more than standard pegs. But given the fact I’m pretty sure I’ll *never* lose one and the UV-resistant material should give them a long life, it’s a good pick for cruisers.

When the wind did finally settle down we got to explore. Friends who are old hands in the Bahamas cautioned us not to develop strong impressions of the islands based on accessible, touristed Bimini; maybe expectations factored in, but we found it sweet. Supermarket smaller than our old garage. Pillowy-sweet Bimini coconut bread, hot from the oven, “like a coconut croissant” said Mairen. More golf carts than cars, and mostly with 3-digit license plates. Smiles or waves from passers-by, just because.

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The days of wind had kicked up sediment enough that the water clarity was poor, but that didn’t stop a few hours of fun splashing around.

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Testing out the new snorkeling masks. 42 Wallaby Way, anyone?

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Pelicans look suspended in the clear blue of Bahamian water

It felt good, SO GOOD, to just hang out as a family again. Walking on the beach, finding stray dogs to play with, looking for sea glass, reconnecting.

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The epic-sized hot tub at the nearby resort–  a monstrosity we forgive for also making wifi available to the anchorage– was just fine, thank you!

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Burial grounds for conch bones, in mountains behind various shacks and wharves in town.

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Invigorated by the prospect of so much to explore, so much to learn, so much to experience.

Passage notes: Bermuda to Connecticut

1 sunset at sea“This is turning into an expensive passage.” Those were Jamie’s words to me after the latest breakdown on our third day at sea. A large block, used for the genoa sheet, had permanently parted ways with the track on deck.

The passage started benignly enough, once we got going. Although the weather watch to depart began the day we arrived in Bermuda, there were people to see and boat parts to fix, and a week felt sufficient. Plenty of time all around, really: there were three weeks before we needed to be in  Connecticut and our passage time, in good conditions, should take only three or four days. What was there to worry about?

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Plenty, it turns out. Systems come from multiple directions: you have to watch for cyclonic weather spinning up from the tropics, and lows rolling off the US east coast. We’re out of the trades and into the realm of variable winds (e.g., no consistent and reasonably predictable wind direction and strength), with convective weather—squalls—to keep things exciting.  Day after day, reports showed either potential heavy weather conditions to avoid, or an unstable forecast marked by significant disagreement between weather data sources about what might happen. A clear weather window for the passage proved elusive, as we have no interest in tempting fate.

At one point it seemed like we wouldn’t even make it to Essex in time for our June 21 presentation (now that was an email I didn’t want to write the event organizers). So when the various models Jamie monitors for weather forecasts finally resolved into agreement – and with conditions looked reasonable- we dove into passage prep and were on our way in a couple of days.

We hauled anchor at dawn in the placid bay inside St George’s. The first day was a gentle beginning, sailing north over the top of the bank to the west of the islands. A small pod of beaked whales—Cuvier’s beaked whale, possibly (any cetacean jockeys able to ID from the fuzzy pictures below?)—were the sentimental boost to a perfect day of comfortable sailing. If only it had lasted! By evening, the wind and seas combined to make life on Totem more bouncy than is comfortable.

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One of the significant dynamics in this passage is the Gulf Stream, a fast, warm ocean current that flows northwards along the US east coast, bending out and across the Atlantic towards Scotland and Norway. In our path, we’ll cross it at points where speeds may be up to 3 knots. When wind direction opposes current, the Gulf Stream is a famously miserable place to be.

We didn’t cross it until our third night at sea, and at a time that the wind and current aligned, making the passage relatively smooth. But beginning the first evening and lasting for the next couple of days, the swirls and eddies to the east of the main force of the stream created very uncomfortable sea state.

The dominant current stream bears close watching and careful planning to avoid when wind opposes current, but it’s the smaller flows spinning off from it that make a significant impact to passage planning. Current is the foundation of the sea state here: specifically, streams current in close proximity that are running in opposite directions. This causes peaky waves of enhanced size. It can be really uncomfortable. This is similar to our experience in the Mozambique channel. There, too, the dominant current is conventionally described as monolithic – when actually, it’s much more complex.

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Compounding the confused seas, we seemed to be doing a lot of unexpected upwind work. Routing algorithms indicated we could expect up to 25% to be upwind, but other than some gorgeous beam reaching the first day, the passage was almost entirely hard on the wind. And then, the wind was much stronger than expected forecast: instead of 20 knots (which we always always assume could be 40% higher, so, pushing up near 30 knots) we instead had a lot of mid-thirties, one especially uncomfortable night in the 40s, and top gusts around 50. Sailing into this wind, in sloppy seas, is cagetorically Not Fun. Recall that force=mass x acceleration, mix in square-fronted waves that are moving against us with the current, and it makes for uncomfortable pounding. Water sluices back along the side decks. Every imperfectly sealed hatch is found the hard way, and the girls’ bunk was soaked with saltwater. Leaks from the main cabin hatches make everything damp and salty.

The stress of these conditions cost us our kayak. We picked up the well-used Keowee from CraigsList back in… 2007, I think, or maybe it was 2006. It was a playground for the kids during that time at the dock while we worked getting Totem ready to leave. It was their first stretch of independence. It’s been our second car for years, the kids’ by default. My haven for solo exploration, or the nest for 1:1 time with one of the kids.

Niall and Mairen in our home port, Eagle Harbor…wearing jammies

Niall and Mairen in our home port, Eagle Harbor…wearing jammies

It happened when one of these steep-fronted waves smacked into the bow for the Nth time. The kayak spends passages lashed to a couple of stanchions, and there was enough energy in motion for the broad, flat bottom of the kayak to exert significant force against the stanchions. One broke off at the base, loosening the lashing. A subsequent wave picked up the kayak and flung it over the lifelines, still attached to the boat and now banging on the hull while full of water. There was no safe option but to cut it loose, complete with paddles, fishing pole, dock hose, and more stored inside.

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no more kayak; the broken forward stanchion is tied to its aft neighbor

This wasn’t even the worst chapter. Most frightening of all was in the wee hours of our third night at sea. Towards the end of my watch I caught the whiff of a faint odor; it got stronger when I went below, and seemed like smoke. I woke up Jamie, who has a gift for going from zonked to alert in seconds (not my specialty), and thank goodness for that, because it was apparent that something was burning and fire on board holds among the greatest potential for disaster. Jamie immediately went in action to suss out the source. Niall sees the lights on in the cabin, and although our teen is usually only up at 2:30a.m. if he hasn’t gone to bed yet, pops out to assist—getting out the life raft, putting it in the cockpit with our ditch kits, following us with fire extinguishers, doing whatever needs to be done. Tense minutes tick by searching for the source: engine, battery bank, charger, electrical panel check out. Finally, it’s found at the controller for the solar panel. This voltage regulator shorted internally, and the smell is from wires melting inside the unit. A breaker has already tripped, and likely prevented any further problem even if we hadn’t found it ourselves, but our hearts are pumping as Jamie disconnects the remaining wires.

last sunset at sea: no more ocean sunsets for a while

last sunset at sea: no more ocean sunsets for a while

Chalked up to Neptune’s might: one kayak, one stanchion, one fancy big block, much salty laundry and cleaning to come. Some wet books, salvaged with careful drying. Not claimed: morale of the crew under tough conditions. The kids chipped in proactively, whether washing dishes or standing watch. Laughing and dealing instead of griping when the saltwater spray and leaks find their way, unwanted, into yet another corner of Totem. Acting quickly and as a team in an emergency. I am so proud of our crew. And I know we are all very grateful to put this passage behind us.

This wasn’t the dreamy voyage of night watch ruminations under a canopy of stars. It’s one we’re all happy to put behind us. Closing the miles towards Stonington, although I mourn the kayak, the energy on Totem isn’t mired in the difficulties of the past days. There is palpable excitement as we get closer to the “home” our kids have mostly learned about from afar, and the friends and family they recall through a few distant memories.

Totem is now tucked in at the Essex Yacht club for Summer Sailstice! Looking forward to a long weekend of good times and information sharing with the SSCA’s annual gam.