Having been anchored in a small cove on the north side of Ensenada Honda, a little bay in Culebra, Puerto Rico, we enjoyed a tranquil existence. We chuckled as we complained about the air temperature dropping below 80 degrees. We bristled at a “cold” upwelling of water might have touched our naked undersides while on our daily swimming laps. Our only company were pelicans and fish. Aside from once-weekly dinghy rides, about 1.5 miles into the small town of Dewey, for limited groceries, we saw only a few people from afar, usually what looked like a family with young children several times each week who would enjoy some time down at the dock. It wasn’t difficult to quarantine while wasting away our coexistence.
We’d been intently watching weather for any good opportunity to make a run directly to New England. For many weeks this study of the weather continued; it began more intensely in early April, but at that time was more focused in a truncated version of a speedy route directly toward Norfolk. But it was still too cold back home close to the New Hampshire border, and we knew the Chesapeake well enough to find refuge as warmer days returned for us up north. Being fortunate to access the global Internet, we also read the news, and watched intently to the horror continuing in the more “civilized” parts of our world. “You are safer there.”, our friends back home would say. We decided to leave anyway – this piece of paradise. Hurricane season is upon us, and we’re sitting in its central alleyway. Experts are saying it’s gonna be an active hurricane season.
We developed a simple routine: I awoke with the sun, made dark and delicious Puerto Rican coffee and studied the weather while sipping. We usually did chores around the boat early in the day before the sun warmed and created conditions for which a sweater was created to keep warm up north (except without any clothes on). Some days I’d write a few blog paragraphs. Then I’d sigh after realizing the weather outlook still wouldn’t allow a direct passage northward. We’d speak our disdain for the oceangoing weather, but satisfy ourselves for another day – it was still “too cold there anyway”.
So our big day eventually did approach. The proverbial weather stars were aligning: Chris Parker (cruisers’ weather guru) said we’d expect good sailing conditions for the next five days. For several days prior, the 500mb upper elevation weather charts tracking across the US indicated fair weather for the coming week. Fayaway was ready. We stocked up one more time with food – mostly cans, rice, pasta, snacks, and as much fresh produce as would fit into our refrigerator.
Three days, two days… One day before departure, forecasts held consistently. Except… That ominous 500mb chart, started showing a trough rolling into the western United States. A deeper one too. Hmmm… I’m not a weatherman but… I’ve watched YouTube and read a book about how to predict weather. But… forecasters didn’t seem to mention this. So, maybe I shouldn’t pay too much attention? Let’s go with the flow. The north is warming.
Our anchor required a bit of extra nudging to break free. It was buried in who-knows-what for eight and a half weeks. Kelly, on the bow, indicated to me back at the helm to slowly motor around as she pushed clumped mud and allowed the Rocna plow anchor to bounce around as it dragged into the water to free the mud and who-knows-what growth. Our anchor now clean and safely secured, I revved up into the wind and moderate chop toward the mouth of Ensenada Honda. I gave a call on the VHF to Gryphon, as we knew he was also preparing to depart. No answer. That’s ok, he’s likely occupied in his final prep – just as we had been for the last few hours.
So off we went. For the first time in months, we felt the freeness of our bow cutting into the wind-driven chop, and after leaving plenty of sea-room from the protective coral reef line, we turned Fayaway into the warm wind and Kelly heaved the halyard to raise the mainsail. “Twenty knots – let’s put the second reef in, Kel”, I shouted forward as our bow bounced into the six foot rollers. Falling off now, we skirted south between Cayo de Louis Pena and Culebra, bringing us NNW toward the north east corner of the Puerto Rican mainland.
After clearing the easterly wind shadow, and the strong easterly trade wind settled on our starboard aft, we dropped the main and rode the full genoa on a comfortable broad reach for the next forty eight hours. We grew our sea legs quickly with five to seven foot swells and chop hit us on the quarter.
Depending on conditions Kelly and I are most comfortable keeping three to four-hour watches throughout the night. Four hours being we feel more settled with the conditions. After the second night, we begin to sleep well in these short stints. We sleep with the comfort and trust that we’ll wake one another if anything is concerning with our vessel. I am the experienced sailor, so she’ll simply jostle me if we need something done with the sails. We have a rule that no one goes on deck at night without the other watching from the cockpit. I’ll wake her if I want to go on-deck, and she’s fine with that.
I love the serenity of evening watches, as I’ll make full use of the time to watch the stars and planets as they rotate above, from rising in the east to setting in the west. It’s fascinating to watch the relative movements of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn and sometimes Mercury, in their march across the sky, often with the moon scurrying around them. All this on a backdrop of the incredibly detailed tapestry of our Milky Way galaxy. I marvel at how many ways we could find our direction, where there are several easy-to-spot pointers that in-turn point to Polaris, which essentially leads us to true north. My fascination is held by two opposing methods. The ancient celestial performance occurs ironically while we keep multiple sophisticated mapping and directional instruments to hold our course arrow-straight… radar, AIS, GPS, autopilot, etc. Despite our multiple redundancies in technology used to find our way, I’ll always keep the sextant handy in it’s comfy box, ready if needed. Sometimes I take it out, even at anchor, for fun, just to practice bringing the sun down to the horizon. For some reason, I find relief that I can still find the objects at all in the mirror, as I’m well out of practice.
Those first two days were a nice sail, making 170 nautical miles on average. Not so bad. And that’s with reefed sails, and/or only the genoa! We were cruising right along, on a rum line to the East Bahamas marker, about one third the way to Norfolk, or about 400 nm. But then we heard via our satellite weather report an unlikely scenario was unfolding.
Stay safe for now. Wash your hands if you go out. And stay tuned for the next chapter…