Mid-Life Cruising Sabbatical

Chapter 15

Our Cruising Log
Part 2

George Town to the Virgins


See comments at the start of Chapter 14

LETTER 2 (second half)

"Down Time"

Lat. 18 20' N 65 55' W

September 23, 1991

 

We arrived in George Town on April 25, just in time for the Family Islands Regatta. George Town is a final destination for many cruisers and is called "Chicken City" because many people who planned to go to Venezuela never get past that point. Every winter hundreds of boats come down to George Town from North America and take up residence. The final event of the season is the Family Islands Regatta which is limited to Bahamians in traditional wooden boats. It's quite a party.

The entrance into Elizabeth Harbor (where George Town is) was one of the most challenging on the trip. It's a good thing we had been cruising about four months when we encountered it. Otherwise, we might have turned around and headed home! Here are the instructions from "The Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas":

"Proceed on 165 until past the reef off Conch Cay, at which point Conch Cay Light should bear due east. Alter course and steer for the Stocking Island Beacon (about 130). On this leg, you must pass between the southwest side of the reef off Conch Cay and a rocky bar (often marked in some way, often not; at this writing marked with a blue barrel) which lies about parallel to it, approximately a quarter mile to the west-southwest. In good light this rocky bar can be seen quite distinctly.

Once clear of the rocky bar, when Simon's Point bears about 173 and Conch Cay Light is about 350 yards northeast, steer directly for Simon's Point on the 173 course until you are over the black patches or within 200 yards of the point, at the same time keeping a lookout for rocky patches you will pass on your starboard hand. From this point steer 128 until on a line between the pink houses of Simon's Point and the beacon on Stocking Island. Then alter course to the beacon, thus avoiding the shallow sandbank that extends southwest from the vicinity of Lily Cay. The deep channel follows the Stocking Island shore and is unmistakable. When the entrance of Stocking Island Harbour is brought abeam, you may alter course and head for the George Town dock, one mile to the southwest."

And here are the cautions that go with the directions:

"Cautions (1) The approach described here is a dangerous entrance in anything but adequate light conditions, when hazards can be seen distinctly. (2) Unfortunately, as new construction takes place, approach landmarks have become less distinctive. The approach to the western entrance of Elizabeth Harbour is on a course of 165 on Simon's Point, which is being marked with a privately maintained pole with a black-and-white vertically striped dayboard and topped with a radar reflector, the old Simon's Point Light having collapsed. This mark shows above the surrounding foliage and appears just west of a pair of large pink houses which can be seen in a group of palm trees silhouetted against the sky. (Be aware that a coat of paint could change the color of these houses in a day.) The mark and the pink houses are your target. Just to the southeast of these (to the left as you enter) there is a prominent two-story, gabled house: Do not head for this; it is mentioned here only to help you locate your target on Simon's Point. if you mistakenly take your bearing on a house east of Simon's Point, the 165 course will take you onto the reef. Be right, and do not just give it a try. If in doubt, there are local guides who will come out and take you in for a fee. All answer to their call signs on VHF 16. They are Wendell Cooper (interlude), Clifford Dean (Gemini ii), Ed Haxby (Exuma Fantasea), and Wendell McGregor (Little Toot.). (3)In a heavy ground swell, particularly during the ebb, the seas tend to break for much of the distance between Channel Cay and Conch Cay, and the cut can be impassable. Calm weather is equally dangerous because without breaking seas, the shallow reef off Conch Cay is difficult, if not impossible, to see. It's there, and boats are frequently lost on it. There have been three sailboats between 38' and 42 that were total losses between March 1986 and February 1991. Others have been grounded, but freed with assistance."

Many cruisers spend the entire winter year after year in George Town. George Town itself is on Great Exuma Island which runs roughly east - west. To its east about a mile away is Stocking Island running parallel to Great Exuma. The body of water in between is Elizabeth Harbor. During World War II it was a US submarine base. Some boats anchor on the George Town side of the harbor, but most anchor on the Stocking Island side.

George Town has really accommodated itself to cruisers. The Exuma Markets (grocery store) will receive and hold mail and has a dingy dock; there is a Laundromat with a dingy dock, etc.

During the season there are volleyball games and beach cookouts and all sorts of social activities. Local bars have happy hours for cruisers.

There are also get togethers of the folks who are going further south. Anyone who has actually done it tells "the winds were from here and the seas were from there and them that died were the lucky ones" stories. Great fun! If you have gotten this far by yourself this is where you will probably look for other boats to travel with for the next part of the journey.

By now of course it's early May and we had planned to be much farther along. We decided to take a direct route to the Virgin Islands rather than island hop through the Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This meant an offshore passage of seven to ten days. We found a Canadian couple (Dennis and Mary Ann) with whom we had been sailing who were willing to leave their boat in George Town and make the passage with us. We got Down Time all ready for this journey with extra spare parts and extra fuel and on May 16 left on the big trip. Once again the weather was against us and on May 19 we knew we could not make the straight shot without going almost to Bermuda and none of us were up for a 15 day passage. We turned south and on May 21 arrived in Provodenciales (Provo) in the Turks and Caicos.

 

We later learned that to make the direct shot from George Town to the Virgins you need to be able to motor due east to 65 degrees longitude and then turn due south. Down Time had neither the engine nor the fuel capacity to do that.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are a British Crown Colony. The only island we visited was Provo. Provo is very barren with not much to recommend it on shore. The waters, however are some of the prettiest we have seen. A lot of people go there for diving vacations. We left the Turks and Caicos on May 30 for a non-stop run to Puerto Plata (Port of Silver) in the Dominican Republic.

We spent a few days in Provo doing laundry and other chores. We docked at Turtle Cove Marina. The entrance in through the reef was another challenge, but in this case we called on the VHF and the marina sent a boat out to guide us in.

From Provo we sailed due south to the border of the Dominican Republic (DR) and Haiti. We then turned east and slogged to windward along the coast for 30 hours to get to Puerto Plata. Geographically the DR was a nice change after the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos. The islands we had seen so far were flat and mostly treeless. You don't even see them until you are only a few miles away. The DR is very mountainous and can been seen from up to 40 miles away.

We left Provo mid morning on May 30 and arrived in Puerto Plata on May 31 about 3:00 pm. Some people choose to take several days to make this trip, working their way across the Caicos Banks by day and anchoring at night. We swung west and south around the Banks so we could make the trip in one shot.

During the first night we had our one and only incident of "being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Diane was on watch and we were under sail alone. It was about 3:00 am. All at once the lights of a freighter appeared less than a mile away. We were on a collision course and quickly tacked away. As we got a little distance from the freighter, all her lights went out. We turned on our radar and we could see lots of little boats around the freighter. Drugs? Illegal immigrants? Who knows?

Now days most cruisers make their first port in the DR at Luperon. However, in 1991 it was not a port of entry so this was not an option. There is also an old port right on the Haitian border that some people go to. It's an old United Fruit shipping port.

Puerto Plata is a dirty commercial harbor with no facilities for yachts. However this was our first introduction to a very inexpensive country. Beer (in a bar) is $ .80, mangoes are $ .03, pineapples are $ .25. A nice dinner with drinks is about $ 6.00.

We docked stern-to to an old concrete city pier and wired in our own electricity. Yep, that's right! Bare wires that you connect your shore power to. We were not in Kansas anymore, Toto!

The DR was very concerned about black market currency exchanges and there was a huge billboard right across the harbor that warned of all the dire consequences of doing so. Well, it was Friday and the banks had already closed until Monday and we needed DR cash for the weekend. Not to worry. Our "boat boy" (here they are licensed by the police) could solve the problem. He and Jim went off down some back street to a betting parlor. Before going in, he told Jim to give him the money we wanted to exchange. Somehow he slipped it to the proprietor of the betting shop who disappeared for about ten minutes in the back of the shop. Jim was sure we had been had and that we would never see that money. However, the proprietor returned and handed Jim a local newspaper. Jim looked puzzled and the "boat boy" suggested he check out the sports section. Sure enough, there was the exchanged money.

Puerto Plata has a unique form of public transportation. There are scores of young men riding around on small motorcycles. For a few pesos you hop on the back and they take you where you want to go. We saw lots of local women doing their shopping this way - packages and all.

The local rum is so inexpensive that when you order a rum and coke, the coke is the most expensive part. In fact, a rum and coke ordered in a bar consists of a can of coke and a half pint of rum. That's the smallest amount they sell.

Another DR treat is to order a pineapple drink. The take a fresh pineapple, peel it, and drop the whole thing in a blender and that's it.

If you ever go to Puerto Plata be sure to go to the central square for a fried egg sandwich. There are vendors all around the square that sell them. They have a large pot of hot cooking oil into which they break an egg. It floats on top of the oil as it fries. They scoop it out and serve it as a sandwich with shredded lettuce and hot sauce. Absolutely delicious.

We mentioned the three cent mangoes. Puerto Plata is where we learned that the island markets have one price for locals and one price for tourists. We learned to watch and see what a local paid and then tell the vendor we wanted the same price. Worked every time for the rest of the trip.

The public market in Puerto Plata was one of the best of the whole trip, even if it is shaped like a spaceship!

From Puerto Plata we worked our way along the coast to Samana. All this sailing was done at night when the trade winds slacken (our path, as always, was directly to windward). We arrived in Samana on June 6.

On the way to Samana we stopped for the night in Bahia San Francisco. Now the DR officials are very fussy about where you can and cannot stop. Bahia San Francisco is not on the approved list but is a beautiful anchorage with a waterfall coming right down to the sea. Most cruisers stop here for a fresh water shower in the waterfall.

As soon as we had anchored, out came the local "official" from the fishing village. He looked to be about 16, was dressed in jeans and a white navy cap and carried an old rusty M16. He was rowed out by two men in a boat they obviously had made. He spoke not a word of English, but was very polite. His friends held their boat off ours with their hands so as not to damage out topsides. In addition to his M16 our "official" had a US military issue English - Spanish dictionary. Between that and Diane's Spanish, we got along just fine. We told him we would be gone before sun up and that was OK with him.

Samana is a small resort and fishing town (Did you know that the two most popular Caribbean vacation spots for Europeans are the DR and Cuba?). We found the people to be the friendliest we have met on the whole trip. We did some boat repairs and took a trip by donkey to a waterfall high in the mountains. We left Samana on June 26 for Puerto Rico.

In Samana we discovered another form of DR transportation - the motor concho. This is like a rickshaw pulled by a small motorcycle. Samana was where we lost one of our guns (see story in Chapter 12). Samana has a Chinese restaurant that even Tristan Jones says serves terrible food.

We bought a papaya in the market here that was so large we took it back to the boat a weighed it - 7 pounds. One of our cruising friends bought what she thought was a watermelon only to find out is was a huge squash.

Here we met a couple on a 31 foot Bayliner who were traveling from New Jersey to the US Virgins. Yep, a Bayliner 31. The only chart they had of the entire trip from Florida to the Virgins was one of those plastic coated things they sell fisherman in Florida. Somehow that and a GPS had gotten them this far. We met because they asked Jim if we had any spare charts. Turned out we did and Jim gave them some for the trip from Samana to Puerto Rico. We assumed they could read the charts Jim had given them. Turned out we were wrong. They left Samana several days before us at about 7:00 pm. We decided we would leave the VHF on and talk to them as they left Samana Bay. All of a sudden our friend called and asked Jim what the "hedges" on the chart meant. Hedges? What could he be talking about. Jim got out our copy of the chart to look. Hedges, hell! that's a reef! They gave us their position and they were almost on top of the reef. We radioed to turn 90 degrees to port immediately and ask us why later. From that day to this and probably forever, reefs will always be hedges to us.

The route from the DR to Puerto Rico takes you across another of those infamous bodies of water: the Mona Passage (see Gulf Stream in first letter). This is a point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea and it can be (and was) rough. We left Samana about 0300 and had very calm conditions until about 1800 that night. All night we had winds of 25 - 30 knots and 8 - 12 foot seas. Finally we got to the lee of Puerto Rico and things calmed down. We arrived in Boqueron in the early afternoon.

Boqueron is very much a weekend seaside resort town. There is a branch of the University of Puerto Rico a few miles away, and all the students come to the beach on the weekend. We got a dock at the local yacht club for $10 per day, water and electricity included (a bargain), and proceeded to get parts from the US and do more boat repairs. We also took public transportation to Mayaguez (about 15 miles) to the mall (Sears, Burger King, etc.!).

We left Boqueron again at night and sailed along the south coast to Salinas. This was supposed to be a 13 hour trip but it took 23 because of, you guessed it, adverse winds. About noon on this trip we were boarded by the Coast Guard for a standard search. It was quite rough going when they came on board and you could tell that they were more used to the ride of their 110 foot cutter. Jim took great delight in watching them turn green as they went below for their searches. We passed with flying colors.

So here's the story of our Coast Guard boarding. We are pounding in to wind and seas and the CG asks us to turn and run with the wind to make it easier for their people to board. Jim refused, as was his right, saying that we would barely make our port by nightfall as it was and we certainly would not make it if we lost ground while heading the opposite direction. They agreed and boarded us by running their inflatable alongside while their men jumped over to Down Time. Now we were in US territorial waters as we were close to the coats of Puerto Rico. Our heads were still dumping overboard and not into the holding tanks and we would be fined if they found that. The ride was quite rough and not at all what these coasties were used to. They sent the youngest member below with Jim to check things out. The first thing he wanted to check was the oil discharge plaque in the engine room. So the boat's pounding, it's hot, the engine has been running 12 hours and this kid sticks his head in the engine room for a whiff of Diesel! Talk about green! Next he wants to check the Y valves on the heads to see that they are set to discharge into the holding tanks. Jim takes him to the aft head (the one we use the most) and points out that in order to check the valve you have to get on your knees with your face just above the head and reach around behind to feel (you can't see) the valve. That was it for this coastie. He headed for the deck as fast as he could.

From Salinas we took public transportation to Ponce which the cruising guides recommended. We didn't find much to impress us.

From Salinas we made a short day sail to Puerto Patillas where the first of the summer tropical waves kept us for a couple of days. Then we rounded Point Tuna and sailed into the resort community of Palmas del Mar. One night there (dinner at a Chinese restaurant) and we were off to Culebra. Culebra seems to be a hang out for US hippies who found Key West too up-scale for them. There was still lots of evidence of Hugo damage from two years ago. From Culebra it was a half day sail to St Thomas.

We arrived in St. Thomas on July 20. The next day Tim and Eileen Bushman (the first of our visitors) arrived. They spent a week with us and we sailed both the British and US Virgin Islands. After Tim and Eileen left we spent a week sailing around the islands with Dennis and Mary Ann. We came back to Charlotte Amalie on August 4 and Dennis and Mary Ann flew back to George Town and their boat on August 6.

The rest of August was spent docked at Yacht Haven Marina getting all kinds of work done on the boat. I won't bore all the non-sailors with this, but I'll enclose an addendum for you sailing types.

On September 5 we left Charlotte Amalie for a little cruise around the islands. We were gone about 10 days and circumnavigated St. John and Tortola. We decided this was the perfect season to be sailing here. The place is deserted. Anchorages that might have 30 or more boats in season were all ours.

Now we are back at Yacht Haven in Charlotte Amalie planning our trips back to the States. We decided to go in shifts so that one of us would always be on the boat. We will both be back here in early November ready to head on down island.

We welcome guests anytime, so cash in your frequent flyer miles and come on down. You can contact us as we said in our first letter which I'll repeat here for those who have forgotten.

You can call us via the AT&T High Seas operator. Dial 1-800-SEA-CALL. Tell the operator you wish to place a call to the vessel "Down Time", call sign WTA 2000 which is cruising in the eastern Caribbean. It may be a day or two before we get back to you. You can write us at the address on the enclosed card. This address will only be valid for another month since we are closing out the Miami apartment. However, our forwarding address with the post office should keep mail coming to us until we can get you a new mailing address.

The water is fine, the weather is beautiful (particularly for those of you who live in the frozen north). Think of it, how many people in this world actually know someone with a boat in the Caribbean? Here's your chance to impress your friends and get a free cruising vacation.

 

 

The following was an addendum to our second letter that we sent only to our sailing friends as most of it would bore non-sailors to tears.

 

ADDENDUM FOR SAILORS

 

Well folks, the whole trip has been to windward. We literally did not see the wind aft of the beam until we came back to St. Thomas from the BVI's. We have put about 300 hours on the engine either pure motoring or motor sailing. We discovered our genoa had too much of a bag in it and did not perform at all well when partially furled. We had 6 inches taken out of the luff here in St. Thomas.

Here is a list of what worked well and what didn't:

Our Loran actually worked very well all the way to George Town and it continued to work to Provo. The automatic ASF's quit in Nassau so we had to manually enter new ones about once a day.

The radar worked fine and was especially useful on the night runs. We used it to accurately determine the range to freighters and to follow coast lines at fixed differences.

The SSB radio we added last summer is great. We use it to chat with friends we have met along the way, to receive weather information, to get weather fax (in conjunction with the computer), and to pick up world news (we followed Desert Storm via the BBC World News Service). For those who don't know a SSB is a ham radio which operates on restricted marine frequencies. We got a self study course for a ham license before we left. Maybe we'll get around to it before we get back.

We never did get our ham licenses, but I sure would before I went again - especially since they have reduced the code requirement.

The GPS (we named it George) has been great. A funny thing happened because of Desert Shield/Storm. It seems that the military could not get enough military units for the Gulf so they had to use commercial ones. This meant that they could not use the SA feature of the satellites which makes commercial receivers less accurate than the military ones. Thus our George was giving us fixes accurate to within five feet! Another interesting story is that even using commercial units the military could not get enough so they went through marinas confiscating GPS receivers using manufacturer's records to locate them. Our George escaped because we bought it from a Miami exporter and the feds must have assumed it had been sent out of the country.

Of course now (June 2000) there is no more SA.

Our best George story is our trip from Spanish Wells to Hatchet Bay, Eleuthera. The entrance to Hatchet Bay is a 90 foot wide channel blasted into a cliff several hundred feet wide. There are no reliable lights and we arrived after dark. George put us within 100 feet of the cut which is more accurate than I could read the chart we were using.

The desalinator we added in the fall has been great. Between Miami and St. Thomas we took on water only at Chub Cay, Spanish Wells, Provo and Boqueron. We had to send it back for repairs from here. It seems a spring had broken in the over pressure relief system. The water is of excellent quality and of course for 3 months there were four of us on board. We named the desalinator Igor because it sounds like Frankenstein's apprentice working down in the cellar.

The auto pilot (named Reggie) has been faultless and in fact has steered virtually the entire way from Miami. On our offshore run from George Town to Provo Reggie steered for 5 days nonstop.

Our engine continues to overheat and I am involved in a major effort here in St. Thomas to find out why and fix it. Between Puerto Plata and Samana the fuel pick-up tube for the generator broke off and dropped to the bottom of the tank. We ordered replacements from Boqueron and replaced both generator and engine pickups there.

We got a dirty load of fuel somewhere early in the trip and I am only just now getting it out of the system.

We discovered our battery charging systems were not up to the job. In George Town we added a special unit designed for cruisers. It has worked well, but I just discovered that something is wrong with it and it will have to go back to the States for repair.

We never really did have adequate charging capability for all those batteries we carried. Next time I'll put high output alternators on both the engine and generator and install one of those smart charging systems.

Our wind speed/point indicator stopped working and had to be repaired.

We had some bimini enclosure work done here and had some rotten wood in the aft cabin overhead replaced.

Our computer hardware has not fared so well. The ink jet printer quit in Chub Cay, barely a week into the trip. The laptop developed an intermittent display failure after we got to St. Thomas. Right now I am using an old RGB monitor I borrowed from a guy here.

Now for some sailing stuff.

The weather really was awful in the Bahamas last winter. In theory, cold fronts are supposed to cause the wind to swing around in a clockwise direction so that you can sail south and southeast. Well, when the cold fronts came through they were so strong that the winds were high (25 - 30 knots). This caused high seas which meant we could not use eyeball navigation which is the only kind there is in the Bahamas. Thus we sat until the front passed and then the wind was on the nose again.

Since we have been sailing in consistently higher winds than back in Florida we have been using the sails in a furled position. As mentioned above we discovered that we could not point very well with the jib furled so we had it re-cut here in St. Thomas. We have not really put it to the test yet but hope it will be an improvement.

Our five days offshore were a real experience for all of us. It seems it takes about three days to get your system use to the routines. It's easier after that. Since there were four of us on board we stood two people watches. Our watches were 0000 - 0400, 0800 - 1400, 1400 -2000, 2000 - 0000. Thus during the day we were standing six hour watches and four hour at night. This seemed to work well.

The only overnight sails we have actually had were crossing the Gulf Stream (1 night), Gun Cay to Chub Cay (1 night), George Town to Provo (5 nights), Provo to Puerto Plata (1 night) Puerto Plata to Samana (1 night), Samana to Boqueron ( 1.5 nights), Boqueron to Puerto Patillas (1 night). All the rest have been day sails.

Most of our anchorages have been good and our combination chain/line rode has worked well. We looked into replacing the chain/line with all chain, but I thought the weight in the bow would be too much. Except for a couple of times in the Bahamas we have anchored using only one anchor (our 45 lb. CQR). It has never failed us.

We only dragged anchor once on the entire trip.

The sailing should get better as we "turn the corner". Come sail with us.

Yea, right! Turn the corner. Little did I know then.

 

 

Jim & Diane

Send comments to: jkbarrentine@earthlink.net


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