Single Sideband Radio E-Mail Excerpts
May 26, 2005
June 2, 2005
The Cape Horn wind vane self steering system has steered Kestrel over 90% of the time so far, and shows no signs of tiring. A terrific piece of gear.
So I asked Rupert how the Kestrel differs from the Navy 44 he is used to sailing as a coach of midshipmen. "Mostly," he said, "it's the thing about looking up at the waves instead of down."
Everything aboard is damp with salt, except our spirits.
June 5, 2005
June 6, 2005
June 9, 2005
June 11, 2005
June 12, 2005
For the sailors among you, some what-works-what-doesn't items: Cape Horn self steering, A+; Alpha 3000 below decks auto-pilot, A; Raymarine radar with MARPA, B+; Musto "Ocean" foul weather gear, A; Duburry boots, A; Jack Wong (Potomac Sailmakers) sails and canvas, A+++; Wichard (or West knock-off) double tether safety gear, D- (so user unfriendly that it discourages use); lidless cookware of any kind, D-. More later.
We are expecting a blow, even down here, on Tuesday. Thirty knots plus probable. Will let you know how that works out.
June 13, 2005
(email from friend John Holum to Kathy, about Kestrel)
June 14, 2005
I had mentioned that just being so far South was a reason to put in at the Azores. But there is another more compelling reason -- the fact that crewman Rupert Knowles has experienced some of the symptoms of the onset of a mild heart attack. We both knew of the potential for this problem and took the calculated risk. Rupert feels fine now, but we agree that immediate medical attention and a trip home are required. We expect to be in Horta in about 6 days. After that, and after a day or two of reprovisioning, Kestrel will continue on, single-handed, to the British Isles.
June 14, 2005
June 17, 2005
June 17, 2005
(But later in the day…)
June 18, 2005
The SGC radio is down, but be happy for the little ham backup I put in last year. It has been doing all of the work with Herb, weather reports, email, etc.
All other systems go for the moment. Damned lucky, I have to say. No major breakdowns in 2600 miles, knock on mahogany-inlaid-with-ash.
June 20, 2005 Subj: Madness lurks in these waters.
Rupert fixed a nice omelet, which hit the spot.
We are becalmed about 60 miles southwest of Horta. Have just two gallons of fuel left for maneuvering on final approach. There is hope for southwesterlies tomorrow morning. One reads, but at the slightest hint of breeze we both spring to our feet ready to man halyards and sheets -- interrupts the flow of the narrative a bit. And the boat bobs up and down, up and down, up and down. But we take comfort in knowing that by the laws of thermodynamics, this cannot last forever. Right? Not forever, right? Yeah, that's what I thought, not forever.
June 21, 2005
June 23, 2005
June 26, 2005
June 28, 2005
Subj: Kestrel Aweigh!
The reality of being out here alone is sinking in. Rupert Knowles was a fantastic crewman. I have never met a man so willing to go where angels fear to tread -- he shrunk from no duty no matter how unpleasant or hazardous -- and he will be missed. So now I've got to do all that dicey stuff myself, with no one to gripe at.
Tonight I will check in with weathermeister Herb Hilgenberg for the first time in a week. And it will be in the nighttime. For those of you who are used to listening to Herb at 3:30 in the afternoon, bear in mind that check-in is at 1930 UTC, and he does not get around to the Eastern Atlantic sailors until about 2130. That's 9:30 p.m. where I am. But of course this does not matter to one who has no bed time. Your intrepid single-handler practices, not yet perfects, the art of cat-napping.
I leave Horta with real gratitude for having been forced to go there. It is simply a beautiful, welcoming, exotic, fascinating place. The marina alone is worth the price of admission. Flags and hailing ports from -- my rough count -- 22 nations, and boats to match every budget. Fewer and fewer boats going through Horta are under 35 feet nowadays, however. Forty-five feet is the average. But the small boaters find each other and take what comfort they can from chatting up the evils of larger craft ("you can't really feel the wind in those things, you know. . ."). Big boat or small, there are no Sunday sailors in Horta. Everyone there has just crossed an ocean.
I had expected to enjoy a certain cachet as a solo voyager. It was not to be. There were four of us there last week. None of the other three exhibited the least bit of pride in their singularity. So I am practicing understatement, restraining myself from yelling, "JESUS, I'M FREAKIN' ALONE!"
It is good to be moving again. Kestrel feels happy.
June 29, 2005
July 1, 2005
On Chesapeake Bay this upwind business is great fun. Whether or not the boat is actually moving faster, it feels faster -- wind-in-face, spray over the bow, heeling -- and one rests secure in the knowledge that he will be cracking crabs in St. Michaels within an hour or two. Actually many boats do go faster when heeled. This is because speed through the water is a function of waterline length (as I recall the formula is 1.4 times the square root of the waterline length in feet = theoretical hull speed in knots), and boats such as Kestrel, when heeled, lengthen their waterlines -- especially so for traditional designs like Kestrel's, with long overhangs and a lovely deep sheer. Again, never mind all that theory. Just realize that heeling and beating are part of the fun for the average bay sailor.
Come with me now to the mid-Atlantic, where Kestrel is 35 degrees off an apparent wind of about 22 knots from the Northwest. Seas are about 5 feet (not bad), sun is out and skies are blue. The rail is just inches above the water, which means that Kestrel, while still on her feet (as we say), is pressed just a bit, and doing six knots. Lots of salt spray leaping over the port bow and rushing back the cockpit. Jack Wong's bullet proof 90% high-clewed number-three jib is in perfect form, tell-tails streaming aft. The main is double-reefed, this also to keep Kestrel a little more upright and not bury her rail under the water. The Cape Horn self-steering vane is in command. The captain is below. Life is good.
Except that the captain desires a cup of coffee. And it is below, where the captain intends to negotiate this cup of coffee, that the full force and effect of hard beating are felt. The forces are counter-intuitive. Gravity does not pull you down; it throws you sideways. Your body weight is no longer 200 lbs; it is 800 lbs, all to the side. It is not that the coffee mug flies across the saloon, but that the coffee itself, once in the mug, placed there lovingly by the captain himself, miraculously leaps out of the mug and flies as a kind of spital across the boat's beam and onto its curtains, a phenomenon which under laboratory conditions would fascinate even the most burnt out teenager, but which out here is just a royal pain in the arse. The captain knows about this, of course, so one wonders why he keeps trying.
But as I say, on the bay this is but an inconvenience and short lived. The captain's notorious moodiness does not have time to fully blossom as the blood rushes to the left, now suddenly to the right side of his brain. But out here. . . well, I just did a log entry and note that the distance from Kestrel's present position to Old Head of Kinsale (the turning point into Cork, Ireland) is 623 nautical miles, roughly 6 days. The charts and Herb tell me I will be on this tack, in this same wind, for all of those six days. I expect to arrive with a brain G-forced into some sort of madness, and lots of coffee stains on the curtains.
Jack Wong asks if I am talking to myself yet. Answer, yes of course. But some discussions are better than others.
Two people asked if the water is really blue -- hence the term "blue water sailor." Yes, Virginia, it is extremely blue. In truth, I am again amazed at just how blue the water is once you get off the continental shelf. I don't understand the physics of it, but for some reason the water assumes a deep azure (cobalt?) even under completely gray skies. It is very very blue.
The water also glows in the dark. Plankton abounds, and when the ambient light is low (ie., no moon) fire seems to be streaming off the bow and in our wake at night. A thrilling experience. Novelty of it never wears off.
One question about whales, and another about marine life. Amazingly, Kestrel has encountered precious little visible marine life on this passage. Dolphins playing in the bow wake on a couple of occasions on the first leg (Cape May to Horta), but that is all. No sharks, no whales. A few birds. No flying fish on the deck in the morning. A bit strange, really. Eerie.
I turned 64 yesterday, July 2nd. I am in about 15,000 feet of water, nearing a sea floor feature known as the Porcupine Abyssal Plain (I just love the sound of that). Kestrel is moving like a thoroughbred into the home stretch. As I say, life is good.
July 6, 2005
0630 7/7/05 - Kestrel collides with trawler
July 7, 2005
[to Crosshaven Boatyard]
Early this morning I suffered a collision with a trawler with considerable damage to my boat's prow. I plan to put in at your yard for repairs. ETA early Friday morning. Be advised my American vhf radios do not have Channel M. Unless advised otherwise by you, I will tie up wherever I can until someone can show me the way. Steering pulleys were damaged in the incident, so maneuvering may be dicey. I have effected a temporary repair which I believe will hold.
Damage includes: pulpit bent and torn from deck sockets, with deck damage accordingly; bow of the boat smashed, stainless steel fabricated stem head bent back, extensive glass fibre damage over a foot or so back from the prow. About a foot of the bow will have to be reconstructed of glass fibre, and the welded steel stem head either repaired (unlikely) or replaced, perhaps fabricated anew. Also, a vertical plywood post back in a cockpit coaming locker, tabbed into the hull, which holds the Edson steering pulley on one side of the boat, pulled completely away, and cracked in the middle. This will have to be replaced.
This is high tragedy for me; I hope not too many days of work for you. Many thanks for your attention, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning.
JOHN ATKISSON, sv/KESTREL
I have now slept my way back to some semblance of sanity. The final 36 hours or so were entirely without sleep.
And now, as Paul Harvey would have it, for the rest of the story. . .
It was not an altogether smooth landing. About 100 miles out Kestrel had an intimate encounter with a 150-foot-long commercial trawler, which gave Kestrel a bloody nose and considerable chagrin. She is at the Crosshaven Boatyard Marina getting the necessary nose job, which involves among other things, fabricating a stainless steel stem-head to match the old one, which was bent into a pretzel-like thing in a split second. Yeah yeah, I know, you want details.
No I was not asleep. Yes I was stupid, over relying on a radar guard zone while I fixed breakfast. Next thing I knew I heard diesel engines. You're not supposed to hear diesel engines in the middle of the ocean, unless they are yours. I was on a broad reach doing about six and a half knots, three sails up (reefed main, 90% yankee, and staysail). The Alpha below-decks auto-pilot was steering because one of the wind vane's control lines had chafed through the night before (an easy fix that I just had not gotten around to). I looked out the galley window and saw every sailor's nightmare -- the port bow of a red hulled monster trawler headed straight for the center of my brain from a distance of maybe 60 yards.
Time out to explain an Alpha thing. The Alpha has a mechanical (as opposed to electronic) engagement mechanism. Basically it is a control cable with plunger on the end. There is a pull-to-engage-push-to-disengage knob in the cockpit. Being mechanical, this gizmo gets sticky when it has been in ocean salt air for about a month. Not seriously sticky. Just sticky enough to require a little extra force. OK, back to the action.
I leapt into the cockpit, hit the Alpha control knob, and turned the wheel hard right. Or tried to. The Alpha still had Kestrel, heading now straight for the trawler's port side. I pushed the knob harder, and pulled on the wheel again. Same result. Now I was panicked, and so threw my not inconsiderable body weight into the effort and pulled with all my might on the wheel. Bad move. If I had put a similar effort into pushing in the Alpha control knob, things might have turned out differently. As it was, I fought my own auto-pilot, and the auto-pilot won. The Edson (brand of manual steering system) cable sheave on the port side is supported by a six-inch wide 1-inch thick marine plywood bulkhead. I managed to break this bulkhead, right in the middle where the sheave was, thus causing the steering cables to go completely slack. Down now to about fifty feet, I am without manual steering of any kind, and the Alpha still has complete control of the ship (it is connected directly to the steering quadrant thus bypassing the cable system). For the two or three seconds remaining I watched helplessly as Kestrel's lovely bow plowed dead on into the high red painted steel topside of the trawler, amidships. The loud clang of steel, and the bone-crushing sickening sound of fiberglass being crushed is one that will never leave me and I hope none of you ever has to hear.
Suddenly there were people on the deck of the other ship, where there had been none before. I say this not to shift blame. I hit the trawler, after all, it did not hit me. But it confirms that fishermen fish and do not otherwise maintain watches of any kind. Both boats were completely blind to each other and, amazingly, found each other in a huge ocean. What are the odds of that, anyway?
Kestrel literally bounced off of the trawler's hull. And a good thing, because it allowed the bigger ship to pass before Kestrel took another whack at her. My worry now was the huge fishing nets dragging off the stern. But miraculously Kestrel skimmed just over the top of the cables holding the nets, and (Alpha still in charge) kept on sailing toward Cork.
The skipper of the trawler and I spoke on the radio, of course. I asked him to stand by while I assessed damage. Kestrel was taking on only a little water, from splashing waves, but nothing serious. The headstay was sagging, but being on a broad reach, the yankee didn't look half bad that way. The lifelines were slack because the pulpit had been knocked out of its sockets on the bow. But the boat was moving and I saw no reason for any assistance, and told the other ship to be on its way.
Twenty-four hours later Kestrel was tied up at a dock in Crosshaven, with an embarrassed, not a little depressed, and totally exhausted skipper.
The repair work will take a good while. I have taken a bed-and-breakfast and Kathy is driving down from Scotland (where I was going to meet her with the Kestrel), and will be here tomorrow (Tuesday) along with Beacon the cat.
When Kestrel is relaunched, Kathy and I will take Kestrel up the Irish Sea to Scotland, and finally begin our tour of the Hebrides, months late and a few Euros short, but happy that this incident was not the tragedy it easily could have been. If Kestrel had been one hundred yards further along in her course, the trawler would have cut her in two. And if she had been a different boat, things might have been worse. The Bristol 32's nose is a strong one. The men in the yard here are impressed that the damage is relatively minor.
And Crosshaven is a nice place. Must be. George Clooney's yacht is parked four hundred yards away. No sign of George, only his paid crew. But George wouldn't park his yacht just any old place, now would he.
I will alert you when we are next under way and will begin again posting our position. Look for that next Spring.
July 29, 2006It had long been a dream to tour Scotland's western isles, and so now we have done it.
In 7 weeks, according to the GPS log, Kestrel covered an astonishing 987 nautical miles. (For those of you who were following us at the SHIPTRAK website--SHIPTRAK.ORG, then type in KB3FQQ--there was a system glitch in the ham radio operation. Fully 8 position postings from the Hebrides failed to be registered.) Here are the highlights of the Ireland/Scotland phase of Kestrel's journey:
***WILDFLOWER HALL, AND VISIT WITH PAUL AND DEBORAH RICHARD: We had "jumped off" to Scotland from Carrick Fergus, Northern Ireland (where we had explored a Norman castle) and also confirmed that tensions over "the troubles" still fester even in such matters as the handling of flags on boats. Crossed the North Channel in 11 hours, passing within a half-mile of the sun-lit domed island of Ailsa Craig, home of an enormous gannet colony. Made our first Scottish landfall at Troon, where we paused to take care of necessary chores. On Saturday, June 17, we reached the Richards' Wildflower Hall, a hillside house overlooking the Burnt Islands, in the Firth of Clyde where the Kyles of Bute fork. There a mooring awaited us at the foot of their steep, lush hillside garden--the climbing of which a few times a day will keep a body in shape. Kathy and Paul had talked about this day--the day the Kestrel would tie up on that mooring--for years over lunch in the WashPost cafeteria, so the event took on a semi-historic air.
Paul and Deborah were waiting for us in a light drizzle at water's edge and waded in to help us haul our dinghy ashore over the submerged rocks. We could write pages and pages about this kind of Richard hospitality, their skills at cooking on their great Aga stove with fresh herbs and garnishments from the garden, their long friendships with their Scottish neighbors, knowledge of the culture, history, etc., and Paul's amazing stock of stories and lore about, well, just about everything, but in this case especially the surrounding islands and territories. But for the sake of semi-brevity, we'll just say the visit included attendance at a spirited village birthday party for one of their oldest friends in the area, complete with folk dancing by citizens aged 3 to 80; a visit to the Victorian gothic manor house of the Marquis of Bute, and leisurely hours spent reading or chatting in front of a cozy fire in the Richards' cottage, sometimes with Mo the black cat strolling through, or sometimes in front of the pot belly stove in the Richards' "guest shed"--the combination carpentry bench and guest quarters down the garden path from the main cottage, where we stayed for three nights. (We unexpectedly spent an extra night on the mooring there, riding out a sudden and, we're told, unusual series of three gales.)
Of all the places we've sailed, the vicinity of Wildflower Hall (from the vantage of either land or water), with its panoramas of forests and flowery hillsides, moving waters dividing around small and large islands, distant pastures where sheep and cows graze, all against a backdrop of misty green mountains, takes the cup for idyllic pastoral beauty.
***THE CRINAN CANAL: How do you cross a modest mountain range by sailboat? Through 15 hand-cranked locks in five hours. The canal was built in the late 1700s as a shortcut that enabled commercial vessels of the era to avoid the dangerous and time- consuming sail around the length of Knapdale and up the Mull of Kintyre. The canal cuts across mainland Scotland, from Loch Gilp (Lower Loch Fyne), through countryside that has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years (and is strewn with ancient carvings, monuments, prehistoric rock art, and other remnants), through the villages of Lochgilphead and Cairnbaan, through some draw bridges, to the small community of Crinan, little more than a whitewashed hotel overlooking the Sound of Jura on the Atlantic side. Paul Richard had given us the good idea to try the shortcut, saving ourselves a two-day sail as we headed for the Hebrides.
After we left Paul and Deborah, we had stopped in Tarbert, a charming little town with the ruins of a castle once inhabited by Robert the Bruce. Around the docks, we happened quite coincidentally to run into Damon Kinneil, who turned out to be an old boating chum of Paul's. He gave us some additional tips on how to negotiate the canal. By the time we arrived at the first lock, in the Ardrishaig Basin, early on June 24, we thought we were prepared. We had enlisted the aide of Hugh Kirk, who lives nearby and earns the money to pay for his visits to his daughter--a sailor's wife--in Norfolk, Va., by hiring out (40 quid per) to shorthanded vessels going through the canal.
Thank God for Hugh! The old mechanisms demand heavy muscle work. Getting through a lock requires at least one person to push the gates and then hand crank the sluices, and also throw, catch, secure and cast off lines from the top of the lock, some 15 or 20 feet above the boat deck. The long wooden gates, levers actually, that open and close the locks must be pushed bodily, and sometimes we would see a whole family from a nearby village pitching in, throwing their backs against the timber. The process also requires one person on the stern and another on the foredeck of each boat, each person letting out or taking in lines under heavy pressures as the boat rises or falls with the turbulent waters against the mossy, slimy slick walls of each lock and while also sometimes fending off the other boats. These deck duties alone occupied the two of us quite substantially. It definitely helps to have good weather for this passage. Our day was mostly sunny, cool and mildly breezy, with the occasional light drizzle, but we heard daunting stories about the rigors of going through with a strong wind at your back, or in pouring rain or in a gale.
We went all the way through with two other sailboats, which Hugh and at times canal tenders (all of whom remained on land) would direct to one side of the lock or the other, depending on size and shape. This worked fine at first, but as we ascended toward the summit, the locks got smaller and smaller. This meant that we were wedged in together in increasingly tight quarters, heavily reliant on the piloting skills of each helmsman, and with much fending off and moving of rubber fenders along with the handling of lines. Once one of the smaller locks started to fill, there was a torrential waterfall that threatened several times to swamp Kestrel's stern (as well as John's) and fill our dinghy, we were so tightly packed in. The inflow, of course, created very strong currents. (A canal attendant had cautioned us at the outset that, because they are doing the equivalent of moving at high speed through the water, boats sometimes twist in the current and "dive" into the side of the lock, damaging the hull, and therefore we should put another rubber fender or two up forward. Too bad. We were under-fendered, although no damage was done. Lesson learned: more fenders!)
Along our way through the mountains, we had the surreal experience of looking DOWN from our boat deck onto valleys, roads, even some hillsides. The countryside was lovely, pastoral, wild flowers and ferns, birds chirping, lots of hikers, bicyclers and dog walkers (especially magnificent, proud, prancing collies), and at every lock, it seemed some of the local people would be around to watch and often to help the itinerant hill-climbing boats. The downhill part of the exercise was somewhat easier (like in real life). Hugh, our helper, bid us a cheery farewell at Lock 13, informing us that we were done. We motored through the canal for 30 minutes, stowing lines, enjoying the vistas, avoiding the granite cliffs that veered within feet of the hull, wondering what we would do that night about dinner, etc., and we came around a bend to find ourselves suddenly in a traffic jam--a wide place where numerous boats were milling around, fending each other off. We learned we still had two more locks--the big sea locks--to go through. A charming lock keeper named Monica Stewart (who reminded us of Vanessa Redgrave) took crisp command of the situation, assured us this was a common misunderstanding and that everything would be okay. She only wanted to help us and make sure our lives were unruffled. She was there to meet our needs! In any case, at the end of the canal and the adventure, we (and our helpers) had lifted Kestrel 68 feet--or almost seven stories--and then lowered her the same amount. It seemed like more. A grand adventure and we wouldn't have missed it. That night, we slept like the dead.
***THE HEBRIDES: We sailed from Crinan on a bracing sunny morning (June 26) and headed into the Sound of Jura, our first taste of Hebridean waters--actually the Atlantic ocean. We could see immediate differences. There was the layering of light and color as you look out on dozens of islands at varying distances, geological composition, flora and height. There were the dramatic skies with interesting patterns of cloud and light; more than once we saw what appeared to be two red-gold sunsets, one west, one east, simultaneously. And then there was the water itself. We first threaded our way past some smaller islands and up through Dorus Mor, a rough channel that--at least psychologically--served as an imaginary gateway that separated the pastoral landscapes and relatively benign tides of the mainland from the rugged, rocky peaks and rough, turbulent waters of the western islands. As we sailed up into the Sound of Luing, we were careful not to get pulled westward into the dreaded Corryvreckan, the largest whirlpool in Europe, whose currents threaten to drag in passing boats. Even well east of there, and even on this pretty day, the surface waters suddenly seemed to be menacing, with vortexes and eerie rippled patches. The whole Hebrides area is basically a glacier-carved terrain of volcanic mountains, rock piles and towers of rock partially covered by the sea. And there are no channel markers or navigation aids around many of the islands. Some of the submerged peaks jutting into the fierce tidal flows produce dangerous features--most notably at Corryvreckan ("the speckled cauldron"). Tides there flow up to ten knots, and the water can seem to boil, according to the guidebooks. Legend has it that a hag controls the maelstrom and decides which ships will sink and which will survive. The actual troublemakers are a rock stack 130-feet high, 90 feet below the sea surface, and another rock stack adjoining a great narrow pit that dips 300 feet below the seabed to a depth of over 600 feet. Sailors have reported whirlpools that spout up as high as a small vessel's mast, reports Hamish Haswell-Smith in a terrific book about the islands (lent to us by Paul). Later in the trip, we encountered the skipper of the beautiful 72-foot German-flagged yawl Athena, who had just spent seven hours hard up on the rocks in another dangerous channel, Cuan Sound, he said, because "I allowed my focus to wander for about 45 seconds." The current caught him. Rescue boats pulled him off at high tide, and he had suffered little apparent damage.
We sailed between the islands of Scarba and Luing, past another treacherous channel called The Grey Dogs, past the islands Lunga and Eilean Dubh (we love these names!) up into the Sound of Insh to the northern tip of Seil island to an anchorage whose name, Puilladobhrain, means "pool of the otter." We thought we had sailed beyond the moon, but there were 17 other boats anchored there! We dinghied ashore for a hike, stepped ankle deep into our first Scottish bog, crossed over a ridge and down the other side to see the so-called Bridge Over the Atlantic--actually the arched Clachan Bridge, built in the 1790s to connect the island to the mainland. Its joints sprout a rare kind of foxglove. Nearby is a famous pub, Tigh na Truish ("the house of the trousers" in Gaelic, whose name has something to do with the banning of highland kilts after the Jacobite Rebellion.) Only saw two other people and their dog on land that day.
On the subject of international relations, Kestrel's American flag (home flag required on boats, along with courtesy flag for the country you are visiting) constantly attracted people who were touchingly interested in the details of her crossing, many with lavish compliments for her classic lines and state of preservation (she is, after all, 30 years old). At this anchorage, several such people rowed over to our boat, sometimes to invite us for drinks. One fellow commented, "It's nice to see a proper boat!" And he added, "You never see a bad American boat over here. All the ones that make it . . . " he shrugged. In Tarbert, Scotland, an English yachtsman at a restaurant tapped John on the shoulder to ask if we are the ones from "the smart American boat." Throughout our trip, there were so many invitations to "come for drinks" or dinner that we could have spent the whole time doing just that. The boat flag situation was also sometimes a source of tension: Should we fly the Scottish blue and white cross in Scotland, or the British union jack? (Turned out to be the former.) And in Northern Ireland, we were strongly advised: don't put up any courtesy flag in a Republican (anti-British) area.
From Seil Island, we sailed down the Firth of Lorn, around the south side of the large island of Mull. We passed Tinker's Hole, made famous in Stevenson's novel "Kidnapped," and anchored in the Sound of Iona, at Bull Hole. (Don't know and can't really imagine the origins of that name.) We had this anchorage almost entirely to ourselves most of the time, with a gorgeous view north to the islands of Staffa, Little Colonsay, Lunga, Gometra, Ulva and the northern part of Mull. Our anchorage was flanked by cliffs made of the locale's rare pink granite in complex patterns. The beaches were white sand, and the water looked Caribbean blue. There were sheep on the Mull-side hills, where we encountered a helpful shepherd.
On a chilly, windy day, after a very wet dinghy ride into big waves, we reached the landing at Fionnphort and caught the ferry the short distance to the island of Iona, along with a festive wedding party complete with kilts, and a fashion model on a photo shoot, headed for the restored 16th Century abbey (and/or cathedral), built of pink granite on the site of an even older one. The attractions here were not only the windswept beauty of the island, with its well-tended little gardens, but the remnants of Iona's long history of civilization, dating back to the Iron Age, and the fact that Christian monks on Iona in the Ninth Century created the famous Book of Kells, which we had just seen on display at Trinity College in Dublin. Iona early on attracted scholars from all over Europe, but beginning in 800 AD became the target of repeated Viking pillaging, plundering and murdering, which wiped out most of the records. (We learned along the way that beginning in 600 BC, war-loving Celts had started to drift through the northern islands and that, no matter how cold and wet the weather got, the Celts always fought stark naked except for sword belts and some jewelry. We didn't immediately find any descriptions of what happened when Vikings encountered naked Celts.) Returning to Fionnphort, we found we had, um, misunderestimated the tidal state. Our dinghy was sitting high and dry on top of a concrete pier. We had to lower it over a vertical drop of about 12 feet onto underwater rocks and kind of walk it out to deep water.
On our way north, we sailed over to have a closer look at Staffa: 12-story high cliffs of vertical basalt columns that look like they were machined or carved as human building materials for some massive temple. They are, amazingly, the result of volcanic flows that cooled naturally into hexagonal or pentagonal shapes. The geometric formations are pocked with big caves, one of which is named after the Third Century Irish hero, Finn MacCool, or Fingal, who defended the Hebrides against the maurauding Vikings (and is the namesake of the Capitol Hill bar on 8th Street, SE). Staffa (Norse for "staves," used in homebuilding) and particularly Fingal's cave have been visited (and written about) by Captain James Cook, Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. Felix Mendelssohn wrote the Hebrides Overture after his 1829 visit, during which he and his fellow tourists got seasick. Staffa is indeed a dramatic pile. It was strange to see a small tour boat standing off in the big grey Atlantic swells, waiting while a group of tourists picked their way along the cold, wet cliffsides for a look into the cave, as waves crashed and threw spray in their faces. (Sailing guides caution that the holding ground is poor here and leaving a boat untended at anchor is quite risky except in absolutely calm conditions that we had yet to encounter in these parts. We chatted with one sailor who said he was able actually to back his boat's stern into Fingal's cave on such a day.)
At the western tip of Gometra, in blustery weather, we anchored almost within spitting distance of great rock piles that disappeared at high tide, surrounded by grass-covered mountains and granite bluffs and a view of other islands out in the Atlantic. This was the most barren, windswept, deserted (except for the ubiquitous sheep grazing on the grassy slopes), dramatic spot that we stopped at on this trip--and possibly ever. Our anchor held firm through ferocious tidal reversals, a rain squall and gusting winds. (In fact, our anchor held in all sorts of conditions throughout. Hats off to the CQR-35 and its 115 feet of chain.)
After about a week moving from anchorage to anchorage, we were ready to put in for water, fuel and supplies--and dinner out.
We made our way around the big island of Mull and stopped at the charming village of Tobermory in the Sound of Mull, where the sun was shining, dolphins played in the harbor, and the next match in the world cup was the big focus in the public houses. The English were cheering for their team, of course, and the Scots were cheering against the English. Ah, civilization. (We continued our near-total escape from more serious news of world affairs, however.) We spent the next several days in the more protected waters of the Sound, where castle ruins perch on promontories and green forests cover the bens (hills). All along the way, we found a variety of accents--various stews of Gaelic, Norse, Scottish, Irish, Celtic--and some confused us even though they were in "English." As we arrived at one marina, a young woman informed us, "You can pee in the morning." It took us a long moment to realize she meant "pay."
Sailing South, past Jura, we made Port Ellen on Islay (pron. ayla) our final Hebridean stop.
***BACK TO IRELAND, COUNTY CORK: A night or so earlier, we had met Jerry and Sheila Tyrer of Anglesey, North Wales, aboard Helian (a 35-foot Westerly sloop), who had been sailing these waters for some 30 years and were generous with their insights. We sailed in sociable tandem with them for several days as we made our way south across the North Channel, enduring some adverse winds and square choppy waves that made for hard sailing days, and stopping at ports in Northern Ireland until our paths diverged. Kestrel retraced her path back to Howth (at Dublin) and on toward Crosshaven. Sailors among you will understand when we say the Irish Sea is like about 200 Delaware Bays--given to nasty, short square waves and long stretches without a safe harbor--plus the need to dodge fishing nets, freighters and the huge ferries that go 40 knots (to our typical 6). At Carlingford Lough, in the shadow of the Mountains of Mourne, we learned of a scary phenomenon called "kettles." We experienced a jaw-dropping 180-degree wind shift in about two seconds. An Irish sailor explained it this way: "You can get strange winds off these mountains. The winds 'box' the water. There's a photo of it that shows a bowl-shaped depression in the water about 100 meters across." It's apparently as if the wind punches the water. And these anomalies have different characteristics depending on which direction they take. Yikes.
***NOTE ON WILDLIFE: We saw countless gray seals (it seemed each harbor had its own family following the fishing boats in, some actually very tame) and many dolphins. In Argyll with Paul, we saw deer and pheasant. (Domestic sheep and cows, pron. "coos", everywhere, and sometimes in the islands those shaggy redhaired highlanders.) But the most dazzling fauna were the sea birds--all kinds. We especially enjoyed the puffins (many live on Staffa but we saw them all the way to the North Channel), the guillemots (they move like penguins and have bright red feet; one marina, in Bangor, N.I., has a live closed circuit TV feed from inside a guillemot nest on a nearby pier, where you can watch the daily routine centered around the newborns), and shags (which make perfect balletic Esther Williams-type surface dives for fish). There are many types of gulls, with voices ranging from bitchy nag to high squeak to hysterical laugh. As jelly a-fish-anados (sorry!) we've enjoyed the moon jellies and big lionheads with bloody-looking centers.
***WEATHER: True, the summer climate had been well-advertised as cold and wet in the Scottish north (where, after all, sea forecasts include Iceland), but conditions managed to exceed expectations. On many days, we were bundled in several layers as befits our annual final sail of the season on Chesapeake Bay--at Thanksgiving. This made the rare sunny days especially precious--and if they were warm as well, paradise.
***SAILING & NAVIGATION: The Irish sea and especially the Atlantic waters of the Scottish western isles are unforgiving and require lots of homework--calculating tide changes at various places fairly accurately, navigating precisely, timing to avoid killer currents but still take advantage of good winds, and calculating the exact state of tide as you drop anchor (lest you wake up on your side). Alertness underway is crucial. It is sort of like crossing a small version of the Gulf Stream every day, but with jagged rock formations along the way. And in the western islands there are vast stretches with no channel markers. A salute to all those who had to navigate here without benefit of the fancy electronics we have today.
***WHAT DO IT ALL MEAN, ALFIE?: Our sojourn in the Hebrides was a grand adventure. We have truly communed with the ancients, and immersed ourselves in the forces of nature. This entire Ireland/Scotland diversion from Kestrel's Atlantic Circle proper has been something of a pilgrimage to our "roots." We're both descended (our parents have told us)in part from the sturdy peasant stock of the Scots-Irish (aka Ulster Scots) plus, of course, whatever contribution was made by the infernal marauding Vikings. After steeping ourselves in the history of the clan wars, land grabs, political rebellions, raids, enslavements, poverty and basic brutishness of life over the centuries in these territories, we look at the relative tranquility here now (with the possible exception of Northern Ireland) and feel some hope for other troubled places and peoples--at least in the long, long run.
At Crosshaven, the task now is to outfit Kestrel for the next leg of the Atlantic circle--about a five-day crossing of Biscay--which will commence, with luck and good weather, around Aug. 2 or 3, with John and crewman Niall Vaughn aboard. In a masterstroke of good timing, Kathy, during her final leap from the boat onto the dock to tie up, landed crooked and broke her foot. She will return to Washington and Beacon the Cat as planned--but on crutches.
August 2, 2006
Kestrel left Ireland at 0930 local time this morning. She is on her way to Spain with one crew aboard, a fine young sailor named Niall Vaughan. Kathy left Dublin by airplane at approximately the same hour.
August 3, 2006
Textbook passage so far. Pleasant conditions. 136 miles on the first day. Not bad for an old broad.
August 4, 2006
Lovely night, 15 on the beam, moving nicely. Plankton in the water with dolphins. No rain.
August 5, 2006
No Herb [Hilgenberg] this time, but being my own weather man, I am slowing us down to avoid a gale at Cape Finisterre likely on Sunday. So we are ambling down to about latitude 45 North, then stopping until we know what is what.
August 5, 2006
This entire trip has been a run before the wind, boat nice and level and all that. Nice sailing too. Only drawback at the moment is slight apprehension because of a developing gale at Finisterre. Kestrel, of course, has gales for lunch, so no problem. It just puts an edge on it.
[later same day] Diverting to La Coruna to avoid gale at Finisterre.
August 7, 2006
Arrived La Coruna this afternoon at 1300. Have berth right in the middle of the city, where there is a fantastic tall ships regatta going on -- talking thousands of people and about fifty tall ships. Lovely place. We are staying here for at least two, maybe three days.
August 8, 2006
[Crewman Niall Vaughn flew home because of a family emergency; Kestrel will continue South single-handed.]
There is a forest fire raging North of Bayona, which is putting black soot onto boat decks to the South. However that may be, I plan to leave beautiful La Coruna Thursday morning early, and head in that direction. Probably, will spend Thursday night at Portosin in Rio de Muros, arriving Bayona the next day, Friday, in the late afternoon. After a day or so, I will continue South, probably beginning Sunday, with overnight stops (occasionally two or three nights, as the mood and my fatigue dictate), at the following ports: Porto (Leixoes), Aveiro, Figueira da Foz, Nazare, Peniche, Cascais (Lisboa), Sesimbra, Sines, and then a long jump around Cape Sao Vicente into Lagos. That is eight ports. I will almost certainly want to spend more than one night in several of them, if only because distances between them run up to about 60 miles (12 hours of sailing), which will wear me out, requiring a bit of r & r in port afterwards. Besides, I want to see the country. But even with all that, and a certain amount of slippage, I see no reason why I cannot be in Lagos within the roughly 20 days from now to September 1.
La Coruna is a happening place, with attractive affluent looking people digging the 21st century European boom. And people here drive on the RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD, which means that they are fundamentally sound and good.
August 10, 2006
[to Kathy] After 13 hours and heavy winds, I am exhausted but safe and happy at the Club Nautico at Portofin, in Rio de Muros. All is well. Will stay here two nights because of some damage to the main, which I have to repair.
August 11, 2006
[to Kathy] What happened with the main is this: there was an accidental gybe in about 35 knots, which, even though reefed down to almost nothing, caused 6 sail track slides (white plastic things that allow the main to slide up and down the mast) simply disintegrated -- ie., pulled out of the grooved track they were in, shattered or split or whatever. I do not have spares (how did I miss that?). So for tempraries, I have scavenged slides from the very top of the sail, where there is not much pressure, and the very bottom, below the reef lines. That will have to do until I can find a sailmaker or a chandlery, I hope in Bayona.
The fires here are awesome and awful. Turns out this rash of forest fires in Spain have been set by bad people. Two people are involved -- those who oppose certain forestry policies of the government, and those who would be fire fighters and hope to be drafted to fight them for pay. Incredible. At night the hills around the marina are ablaze. In the day, the air is filled with smoke. Homes in this very village are threatened.
Lots of house flies here -- because of the fires, I am told. Apparently the fire smokes them out of their natural habitat in the woods, and so they have swarmed down to the marina to lunch on passing Brits, Americans, Dutchmen et al.
August 14, 2006
Safe in Povoa de Varzim, just North of Porto.
August 15, 2006
Kestrel is currently working her way down the Portuguese coast with only one of me aboard. I am trying to do about 50 miles a hop, then rest a day before the next hop. So far it is working. Portuguese are charming people.
August 16, 2006
[to sailmaker Jack Wong] From your description of flying, the terrorists have clearly won. I suggest traveling by sailboat from now on. All sails holding up beautifully, although I think the main will need replacing by the time we get home. Accidental gybe going around Finisterre a few days ago, in 35 knots (triple reef in) caused 6 sail slides to just disintegrate. But I found spares at the next stop and all was ok. I hate to think what would have happened to the sail if the slides had NOT disintegrated. Lesson learned: don't even think about putting up the main when going down wind in heavy air; let the jib pull you along.
Cheers from Portugal.
August 16, 2006
It is raining hard here in Portugal -- good for fires, bad for yachties. Wind is from the Southwest -- not good for yachties like me going South. No change expected until Friday, maybe late Thursday. I am standing by.
August 17, 2006
[to Kathy] Anchored in the Ria de Aveiro, after a tough long slog to weather--10 hours right in the teeth of a Force 4. Not strong, just the wrong direction. Kestrel is now roughly half way down the Iberian Peninsula. If the Southerlies persist tomorrow, I am going to just sit here until Saturday, when the winds are supposed to back into the Northwest. Now some dinner and sleep.
August 18, 2006
Figueira da Foz, 1730 18 Aug.
August 20, 2006
[to Kathy] I am anchored in an unpleasant chop behind the small island of Berlenda, some ten miles off the coast, about even with Peniche, and about 40 miles North of Lisbon. I was warned away from Peniche by the nice Isle of Man couple who run the Nazare' marina. They say one is forced to raft up with fishing boats, who care not for the welfare of yachts. So I opted for the rough anchorage. Early tomorrow, an 8-hour or so run to Cascais, a suburb of Lisbon, where I will stay maybe three days and rest and decompress.
August 22, 2006
[Re marina in Cascais, Portugal] I am pulling out tomorrow morning (Wed), largely because this marina is so off-putting. It is simply huge, very impersonal, nothing needed is close, and the staff seem to know nothing. Anyway, it is full of Brits and Americans, so not so much fun as the smaller villages anyway.
August 24, 2006
[from Sines, Portugal, to Kathy] Walked
into town today, saw the 13th century castle (within whose walls it
is said Vasco de Gama was born), had a coffee at the funky little bar
on the corner of the cobble stone street with inlaid designs (really
pretty) and took some pictures of the bay below the high cliff near
August 27, 2006
September 13 , 2006
After a wonderful visit in Lagos, Portugal, with sister Erica and her husband Paul, Kestrel leaves continental Europe, and is off to Madeira. A Welshman named Martin Morgan is aboard to help me with this roughly 460-mile passage.
September 16 , 2006
[to Porto Santo Marina] This is American flagged sail boat Kestrel, 10 meters (32 feet), arriving Porto Santo approximately midnight tonight (Saturday, 16 Sept), requesting a berth in your marina. We will tie up at the visitors area unless you can give us a berth assignment by email. Many thanks.
John Atkisson, s/v Kestrel
33º/16º Assistência Náutica,Lda
- Porto Santo Marina 9400-080 - Phone 00 351
September 25 , 2006
[from Madeira] Sorry, folks, Shiptrak does not have our latest position. That is because Kestrel is moored behind a volcanic mountain which is full of molten metal, thus frustrating radio waves which need to go more or less at 32 degrees (true) to reach a ham radio station in the Netherlands. No can do until we move.
September 28 , 2006
[to West Cost friend J] Funchal is a full-blown city of 50,000 or so. Many Love-Boat-type cruising ships -- three or four at a time -- in the harbor. Not much room for visiting yachts (which is why Kestrel is at the East end of the island). I have gone to Funchal by rented car and bus. Hired the car for two days to tour the island. Cheap rent. Three-hundred Euro deposit. They found a scrape on the right side, and now they say I can't have my deposit back. So that was a roughly four-hundred-Euro (read 500 American) ride to see the harbor of Columbus.
But I did ride the sky tram up to the Mont Jardim, which was spectacular. And of course I got to see more Portuguese girls in bikinis, the novelty of which does not wear off.
About [novelist Alan] Furst -- I have read only the two so far. Want to find all the others, but the book stores don't sell English, although French and German are plentiful. All of the marinas in Europe have book exchange tables in the lobby, but they run to the usual paperback sensations of a year ago or so. I swear there were a dozen copies of 'da Vinci Code' on the table at Porto Santo. Tenerife in the Canaries is bound to have a better selection. Meanwhile, I've got two more Hornblower volumes, a Kellerman thriller, and my Spanish grammars. Hola!
October 3 , 2006
Kestrel is under way, single handed, from Madeira to Tenerife in the Canary Islands -- a distance of 250 nautical miles. Weather is fair, winds are light but pleasant, making for a comfortable 2-day trip. Position has been posted, See Shiptrak.com, type in call sign KB3FQQ. Cheers all, John Atkisson, s/v Kestrel
October 4 , 2006
[to Kathy] This has turned into a very rough and wet ride. Twenty-five knots on the beam, but with big seas, lots of spray. Everything is wet. Will be in by 9 a.m. tomorrow.
October 5, 2006
Marina Atlantico, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Islas Canarias -- 10:30 a.m.
[Kestrel stayed in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the Canaries, for the next roughly two months – from 5 October to 2 December.]
Dear Herb [Hilgenberg]:
You were kind enough to be aboard Kestrel last year for passages from Cape May to the Azores, and later from the Azores to Ireland (and five years earlier, Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda and back). KESTREL is now in Tenerife, about to make passage to Martinique. SSB is impossible in this harbor, but I am in touch with DESTINY, which has received an email from you. No need therefore to duplicate what you have told them.
KESTREL will depart Tenerife right after the expected front comes through, probably Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning (2 or 3 December), and sail SSW for about 900 miles to latitude 15N or so, then turn West to Martinique. I will listen for your forecasts for DESTINY and other boats in the area, but as my boat is smaller and slower than the others, I will check in with you daily as soon as conditions permit so you may track my position.
Kestrel is a 32-foot sloop, single-handed, expected to do about 110 - 125 nm per day.
Many thanks and best regards.
John Atkisson, s/v Kestrel, WYQ6055
November 29, 2006
[to fellow cruisers, Alison and Simon, aboard Roxi] You probably know that there is a long (1800 miles or so) front whipping across the North Atlantic, expected to extend all the way down to 20 North or so, due to pass over us sometime Friday. Consequently Saturday afternoon looks good for departure for me. Sunday morning at the latest. You?
Americans Don and Sandy Goodman, aboard Destiny, have organized what they call the NARC Net -- the Non-ARC Net. Roster follows:
December 1, 2006
Kestrel raises sails tomorrow (Saturday) to begin the 3000-mile passage to Martinique, where Kathy will step aboard with Beacon the cat for a roughly 4-month cruise up through the Antilles chain, to the Bahamas, and finally home.
Kestrel and I are making this passage alone as it turns out. Dear friend Adrian O'Donovan who was to crew and expected to arrive here in Tenerife in the Canary Islands last week, is home in County Cork, Ireland, in a battle for his life with liver cancer.
My fellow friends of Bill Wilson will want to know that Adrian has known Bill for nearly 20 years and is almost exactly my age. A perfect stranger to me at the time (June 2005), he was the very first person I talked to on the docks in Crosshaven, County Cork, Ireland. What are the odds of that? A year later, in May 2006, he helped sail Kestrel in Force 7 and 8 winds up the Irish Sea to Dublin to meet Kathy so we could begin our Hebrides tour in Scotland. Thereafter he agreed to make the trans-oceanic passage with me. (There is a dandy picture of Adrian at the helm of Kestrel in heavy winds last summer, on the site: www.kestrelboat.com, click on the "Atlantic Circle" tab.)
Crew have been available here, of course. It is from these islands that the 230-boat ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) departed Sunday 26 November, and so for weeks would-be crew have been walking the docks in Las Palmas and here in Santa Cruz looking for berths. I have interviewed a good many since learning of Adrian's illness. But in the end, as Adrian set the standard against which others were measured, all were at a hopelessly unfair disadvantage and were politely rejected.
Adrian has an uncanny ability to stay in and be grateful for the moment, even now. Last summer in Crosshaven, as the two of us were sitting on a dock, retired and free to spend time "just messing around in boats" (Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows), I was moaning about some minor irritant or other, when Adrian, gesturing toward our two beloved boats, lightly punched me on the knee and said, "Isn't it grand we can do this stuff!"
That sentiment is now pasted onto my dead-reckoning chart of the North Atlantic Ocean, ever reminding me to keep my feet firmly in the now. To Adrian O'Donovan, then, this passage is dedicated with affectionate thanks.
The passage is 2855 nautical miles long, about 3300 statute miles. (A nautical mile is 1.16 statute miles, or 1/60, or one minute, of a degree of latitude.) I will sail South by Southwest for roughly 900 miles, then turn West for the 1950-mile rhumb line to Martinique. As the saying goes, "Sail South 'till the butter melts, then turn right." Kestrel will be in the famous Trade Winds for much of the trip, and so should do a good bit over the usual 100 miles per day. Expect arrival in Martinique after -- I am guessing here -- 27 days, give or take 3. Besides good winds, a westerly flowing current of 1/2 knot or so will help. This was the route of Columbus. Theoretically, if Kestrel had no sails and no engine, and just sat there waiting for something to happen, sooner or later she would wash up on a reef in the Caribbean. I would rather not do it that way.
Forty gallons of diesel are aboard, about 80 hours of motoring time -- adequate for a month or more of daily charging batteries and freezing the fridge's holding plate, still leaving some wiggle room for winding around reefs at the Caribbean end. Electrical energy will also come from two 55-watt solar panels, and a water-gen towed behind the boat when winds are strong. We carry 18 pounds of propane (enough for 3 months) and 75 gallons of fresh water.
People always want to know about sleep. Last year I found on the single-handed leg from the Azores to Ireland (1250 nautical miles in 9 days) that 24-minute cat naps served me well most of the time. We'll see.
As before, Kestrel's position will be posted from time to time on the following website: www.SHIPTRAK.ORG. Type in my ham call sign, KB3FQQ, and then click on the indicated button. Our own website, www.KESTRELBOAT.COM, is being updated as we speak with photos of our Hebrides tour and later adventures. Look under the tab labeled "Atlantic Circle."
A month of blue water, then wife and cat in a Caribbean paradise. Put the kettle on, Mamma, 'cause Pappa's comin' home. How sweet it is!
ss/John Atkisson, s/v Kestrel, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Islas Canarias, 1 December, 2006
December 3, 2006
[to Kathy] Just stunning conditions: full moon, clear skies, 20 knots at my back, waves about 8 feet, number 2 genoa (120) sheeted to the end of the boom (with no main up at all), and the small staysail poled out to port, doing 6.5 knots through the water, 7 over ground (140 miles yesterday, about the same today I think), and dolphins playing in the wake. It don't get better than this.
December 6, 2006
[to Kathy] Seas have risen to about 12 feet (though far apart, nearly 10 seconds between crests) and wind piped up to 25 knots, which is not comfortable for typing long extracts on the laptop. So no lengthy reports for a day or two. Expect to be down around 18 degrees North by Friday morning, when I will turn West and then be dead down wind. Also, Herb says winds will abate down there, so conditions will improve. Not that they are bad. Kestrel is just flying. Previous 24 hours (at 0600 this morning) was 151 miles. Kestrel's all-time record is 162, done on the way to Ireland in a gale!
December 7, 2006
Kestrel just passed the one-quarter-of-the-way point. The Canary Islands are 750 miles behind me, as is a 25-knot ENE wind, which is kicking up nasty quartering seas. This makes the boat rock and roll a bit more than is best for writing lengthy emails on hair-trigger lap top keyboards. So I am necessarily brief here.
All systems are go. The boat is behaving beautifully, not once in six days failing to achieve 145 nautical miles, which for this beloved old girl (Kestrel) is remarkable. Conditions have been ideal and contrast sharply with those experienced by Rupert and me starting out last year across the Northern Atlantic (a series of punishing low pressure systems). About a dozen other boats are within 200 miles of Kestrel, and we maintain daily radio contact, more for morale reasons than any other. One distressing note -- the yacht Compromise, a 32-foot sloop, was dismasted sometime last week, and was abandoned, but NOT SCUTTLED! In other words, there is now a mastless (hence, no radar reflector) fiberglass hull floating around out here someplace. All any of us knows is where it was abandoned last Tuesday, not where it is drifting today. The only comfort comes from the odds, which are nearly infinitesimal, against any of us hitting the damned thing.
By tomorrow Noon, the butter should have melted and Kestrel will turn West and, one hopes, calm down a bit. The Saharan desert dust is already out of the air, and dolphins are playing in the bow wake, nodding occasionally toward the Caribbean, as if in the pay of Martinique's Chambre de Commerce. You didn't know about the Saharan dust? Yeah. Every morning for the past two months, Kestrel has had a layer of the stuff on her decks. This is not new, I am told. It has been that way for aeons. A small price to pay on the road to paradise.
December 9, 2006
After nearly surfing at an almost unbelievable 7.7 knots over ground (about 6.5 through the water -- there is a favorable current, you see), in clear skies and moderate seas and big moon at night, 20 knots of East Northeast winds at the stern, and temperature about 82 degrees F, there is serious question whether I will be content, when this is all over, to go back to produce farming in the Midwest. Whoa! Wait, that's a different story. I'm from Washington, DC, where the farming is of a different nature altogether. I do begin to understand, though, why Bernard Moitessier, after circumnavigating in the first OSTAR Around-the-World Race, instead of sailing to the finish line port to claim his honors, just kept going, and going, and going. It is beautiful to a spiritual dimension out here.
To mar that picture a little, and for the sailors among you, two gear failures to note: (1) my fancy LED cluster tri-color masthead running light packed it in; and (2) the Cape Horn self-steering vane is finished for the rest of this passage. The tri-color probably just needs to be jiggled in its socket at the masthead. But ain't no way I'm going up there out here! So I am running at night with an all-around white at the masthead, and making VHF radio "Securite'" announcements every 25 miles or so.
The Cape Horn vane, my absolute most favorite piece of gear on board, has to retire for the next 2000 miles because of a broken collar bone, sort of. A stainless steel collar, which binds the servo-pendulum turning shaft to the turning quadrant (got that? you will be tested), broke away from its housing. The forces must have been terrific, as the steel is 3/16" thick (enough to support your average elephant, easy), and oddly, it broke instead of bending. Go figure. Anyway, an easy welding job in port, but impossible to fix out here.
So the Alpha 3000 below-decks auto-pilot is now steering the boat, and very well too. It requires electrical power, of course, which will mean running the engine a bit more than before, and there is a slight upward tick in the captain's stress quotient in that he no longer can luxuriate in knowing he has two self-steering systems available, but only the one, which for its part is asking for a fresh lamb, or a virgin, to be thrown into the fire each day at dusk. So far my IOU's have sufficed.
But mostly the Alpha is no fun. The Cape Horn vane (which Kathy and I call "Yves" after its inventor Yves Gelenas) is endlessly fascinating to watch work. Alpha boring; Cape Horn fascinating -- got that? You will be tested.
We are beyond the one-third mark. Conditions are said to be favorable for the next 2000 miles. Since Kestrel is making 145 miles per day, it is beginning to look possible to make landfall on or about Christmas Day.
John A, s/v Kestrel, at 17 degrees North, 29 degrees West, and flying!
December 17, 2006
OK, so it's not all a spiritual reverie. Take the day before yesterday. ("Pahleeeese," as Rodney Dangerfield would say.)
There was no wind, none at all. The good news there is that when the wind stopped, so did I. Slept for 8 hours straight. But as in life, when I awoke, there was still no wind, and so I started motoring, having allotted 18 hours of precious fuel use to this lull (and another 18 hours for any second lull that may come up later in the passage), and at low rpm managed about 60 miles over the ensuing 15 hours.
When there is no wind in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean (the sea, we say, is "oily"), it is easy to imagine that there is no wind anywhere on the planet, that somehow all such solar forces have ceased, that the great ocean streams will soon stop; Earth will fry. With fifteen hours of downtime to kill, I indulged in preposterous day-dream quality blame scenarios. For the wind stoppage I blamed one of you -- the one who, in his or her youth, stepped on a butterfly, killing her brutally before the eyes of her butterfly boyfriend, who began flapping his wings furiously, thus setting in motion the series of events which now, some forty years later (you know who you are, so maybe 45) has resulted in all winds on planet Earth having stopped for all time, and most annoyingly, making Al Gore right for all the wrong reasons.
With 3 hours to go in my allotted motoring time, the engine panel alarm started buzzing. Assuming that there was a short in the panel, as this had happened many times before, I set about working on the panel. Got out some tools, extracted the panel -- motor still running -- and multi-tested electrical contact points. It never crossed my mind that the buzzer might actually be doing what it is paid to do, which is warn me of something wrong down at the engine. For a half hour or so I messed around with the panel, only to determine that the panel and its buzzer were not at fault. Hmmmmmm, I wonder if....and I suddenly tumbled to the possibility of disaster and bolted below to the engine room.
What greeted me there was a demoralizing mess -- black gooey oil everywhere, a red hot engine burning said oil and smoking like crazy, and the smell of melting vinyl wire insulation. Under the circumstances, I thought that shutting off the engine would be a good idea. What followed was 9 hours of sorting all this out.
First find the leak. It was immediately obvious that the oil pressure sensor stem pipe, a threaded quarter-inch tube (actually 1/8 inch NPT, but measuring 1/4 inch, which is another story) that screws directly into the engine block, had broken off, leaving a piece of itself in the threaded hole, but also leaving a slightly smaller hole through which about 5 liters of hot oil managed to spurt out all over hell until I finally turned off the engine.
Second, plug the hole. Being a clever boy, I had brought threaded plugs for just such an emergency. Trouble was that the old tube was still in there, having broken off at the surface of the engine block. How to get it out? I tried many things, none of which worked. So I turned to plugging it some other way, trying by turns machine screws with goop, pieces of rubber, epoxy (each time having to strip away the alternator and wiring and hoses in order to get at the damned hole, then putting all that stuff back and restarting the engine to test my fix). Nothing worked. Then I remembered my grab bag of broken, discarded or spare tools and found a small set of screw extractors which Kathy and I had bought at a neat chandlery in the North of Ireland, and thought, ahh now I will be able to extract the old tube and then use one of my nifty plugs. Well, not exactly. The extractor (a reverse thread drill bit) went into the hole beautifully, but it would not, no matter how hard I turned, extract the old tube. But whoa! what it did do is plug the hole! So now we have an engine block with a screw extractor sticking out the side where the oil pressure sensor should be. But the oil leak has stopped. Well, maybe that would be because there was no oil in the engine.
In Tenerife, my last act before casting off the lines was to buy spare engine oil. Almost didn't do it. But I did, and had the 5 liters on board to get the engine going again. The leak was well and truly stopped. But now the electrics were all screwed up. The engine was not charging the batteries, for example, which is about the only reason to even have an engine out here. So another 5 hours was spent rewiring. Fortunately I had done all of the original wiring so I knew it well, and now all of that stuff is working too. Except the engine panel oil pressure gauge, naturally.
Under the special laws of physics that obtain off shore -- in this case, "At sea everything happens at once" -- in the middle of all this the long awaited front that Herb (Herb Hilgenberg, single side-band weather man) had been promising would deliver winds, arrived and passed and handed me a rain squall and 18 knots from the Northeast, requiring immediate reefing of main and changing of genoa, etc. So now I was fixing the engine on the slant, and soaked with salt water.
But it all came together, and I, now exhausted anew, slept, this time while under way, for 2 hours, then 2 more, then 2 more, in blocks with the radar guard zone alarm set. I am good to go again and Kestrel is back in the groove doing 6 knots on a broad reach. Skies are clear and the high is filling in behind the front. Herb says I will have 2 full days of this good stuff, then some more light air.
Today is better. Any day without hot oil in your face is a good day.
Cap'n John, s/v Kestrel, at 15 degrees North, 45 degrees West
December 18, 2006
That last one was a downer, huh? This is better.
Jack Wong's magnificent 625-square-foot tri-radial spinnaker is up -- the tack to windward on a 14-foot pole -- pulling Kestrel toward Martinique at just under 6 knots in only 8 knots of wind. Not bad for an old broad. Skies are blue, seas are moderate, and Herb promises more of the same for four days. "You won't go anywhere fast," he said, "but conditions should be very pleasant." And they are.
Was it difficult getting up the chute when I was alone? Yes. Will it be difficult getting it down, being that I am alone" Yes. Is it madness to be flying a chute when in the middle of the North Atlantic alone? Yes. Next question.
Garreau wants to know about sleep, others about daily routine.
About sleep. The stated plan was to depend on 24-minute catnaps. The theory is that it takes a ship about that long to close on you from the horizon where it is first sighted, if, that is, it is aiming for you and going top speed. It didn't work. From the beginning I realized I needed longer sleep periods if I was to enjoy even a minute of this adventure. So I experimented. And I observed that unlike the East-bound North Atlantic passage of last year, there was no traffic on this one. I have been under way now for 18 days and have not seen one other boat, not one. No commercial craft, no other sail boats, nada. I also took stock of the fact that Kestrel is equipped with a nifty radar device with a timed transmit and guard zone alarm feature. The radar transmits 20 sweeps every ten minutes, and if a blip comes up anywhere within the 6-mile zone I have set, an audible alarm goes off. As a practical matter, this device goes off at least once an hour because of pocket rain squalls -- little squalls are always floating around these waters, and are readily seen by radar. Anyway, the pattern is now thus: 2 hours sleep at mid-afternoon (local time), and 4 hours from 2 to 6 a.m. (local). Again, as a practical matter, I scan the horizon once each hour, when the radar alarm goes off for whatever reason -- a squall or waves in sea clutter, but never (so far) a ship. I am well rested.
The daily routine has turned out to be defined by radio nets. These are formal, such as Herb Hilgenberg's weather net, or informal, such as the NARC net.
Time out for sidebar on the NARC net:
On the docks in Tenerife there were two sets of trans-oceanic sailors -- those participating in the ARC, and those who were not. ARC stands for Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, begun some 25 years ago by Jimmy Cornell, and has grown in that time from 15 or so participants to this year's 260. Old salts like myself and the rest of my scruffy kind take pride in NOT being part of this mad pack of 260 neophytes. We joke at their expense, we swagger when we walk and talk, and take pride in being rugged individualists, not lulled into some false sense of safety from sailing "in company" as it is called. The ARC boats each paid about $1000 to enter the rally, and all have big colorful flags in their rigging announcing their participation. We rugged individualists don't have any such a damn thing.
A big feature of the ARC is their own special daily radio net, in which participants get customized weather routing information, and trade what they know, and generally have a good time. The time and frequencies of this net are a closely guarded secret, and are changed from time to time to frustrate wannabe eavesdroppers. We would show them, bigawd!
So we swaggering old salts founded our own net -- called, naturally, the NARC (Non-ARC) net. And we are on the air every morning at 1100 UTC. We started with 11 participants, but quickly grew to 16 -- all of us in boats crossing the southern portion of the North Atlantic, most of us for the first time. Truth is, we all take great comfort in these little morning chats, and we profit from trading weather and mechanical info and the like. At 16 boats, we are a bigger group than the original ARC. But having absolutely no sense of irony, we still swagger.
Every morning at 1100 UTC I am on the NARC net for about a half-hour. At 1200 UTC I am on a small private net among only three boats -- single handers. At 1300 UTC I check into the Trans-Atlantic Ham Net, for another half-hour, for weather updates and position reports from other yachts. At 1730 UTC, I check in with Herb Hilgenberg's weather net on a marine single sideband frequency. This is an elaborate process of checking in, monitoring reports to other boats nearby, and waiting patiently for one's own turn to talk to the great man himself -- a process which takes almost 90 minutes. During that time I usually fix dinner and put it aside for eating just as soon as Herb and I are finished. In between nets, I send and receive emails by ham radio, or down load weather fax charts.
Slocum, I am reminded, did not have ham radio, email, or weather fax capability.
The point is, the clock is dominated by radio appointments. I am tempted often to unplug the single-sideband and work on developing a sense of true loneliness. If I am ever off the air long enough to find out how that feels, I'll let you know.
Final note: Last night was spectacular -- no ambient moonlight, so the stars were absolutely clear and bright, and not a cloud anywhere; seas calm, winds gentle; and going down wind, the boat was upright, with no sideways G-forces operating. How sweet it is.
J, s/v Kestrel, at lat 15 North, long 48 West.
December 19, 2006
End of 125-mile spinnaker run. 600 miles to go!
December 19, 2006
Funny how standards change. Distance from where I sit to Martinique (at 7:20 local time, 10:20 Zulu) is 550 nautical miles. About an hour ago I started getting out landfall charts and going over my "final approach checklist," reminding me to put up the Q flag for customs, the French courtesy flag, the stars and stripes at the stern, to get out the anchor and gear, to have a hand held vhf handy, etc etc. Because for me, I am now on final approach, in the glide path to touch-down. Yet the distance I have to go is about the same as that between Chesapeake Bay and Bermuda!
December 24, 2006
One hour shy of 22 days at sea on passage, Kestrel is safe in Martinique. One would never know it was Christmas Eve here -- charter boats coming and going, people walking about in shorts and bikinis, the bar hopping. But Customs knows it is a holiday, and is gone until next Wednesday. So lots of yellow Q flags flying. More to follow. For now, sleep. You may view the entire voyage thus far at www.shiptrak.org. Type in my ham call sign, KB3FQQ, and click on the button. Happy holidays. John Atkisson, s/v Kestrel, Cul de Sac Marin, Martinique.
January 18, 2007
Greetings from St. Pierre, Martinique, Jan. 18. Yes, okay, Kestrel crew has been playing hooky from e-mail and also from the need to press on northward. We've been seduced by the delights of this French island and its charming inhabitants. We'll spare you most of the "picture postcard paradise" stuff, but here are some highlights just to catch up.
As he approached land after 22 days alone at sea, John hove to (rigged the sails to "hover" in place) for six hours in the dark, preferring to arrive in the morning light of Christmas Eve day. He landed in Cul-de-Sac du Marin on the southern end of the island--a hospitable marina with a high quotient of mega-yachts (100 feet or more) arriving from all over. John took the opportunity to crash, sleeping for 15 hours the first night, and 12 the next, and generally recovering from the passage. He then took care of necessary repairs (the Cape Horn self steering vane, for example) and spiffed Kestrel up, cleaning, laundering, generally transforming her for cruising instead of survival conditions. Kathy and Beacon the cat arrived on time Jan. 4 at nearby Le Lamentin airport, south of the city of Fort de France, and they had a happy reunion with John after four months apart. However, Air France decided to hold on to Kathy's checked bag for a while. (Only a minor inconvenience: The main important items in it were those un-carryon-able liquids such as her good shampoo, and a new faucet fixture for Kestrel's galley. The bag first was "lost," then found at Miami airport, where it mysteriously missed a succession of flights headed here. Finally, after just over five days, Air France delivered it to the boat.) The only other small setback has been John's four-day encounter with a flu bug, which seems to have gone away.
We've spent the last two weeks touring the island by rental car and by boat, snorkeling, exploring rain forests, banana plantations, etc., and enjoying the fine French/Creole dining. Temps in the low 80s at midday, water not much cooler. Winds usually 18 to 20 knots. Occasional bursts of rain, then multiple rainbows. (A bit of sociology: We are told that, despite its agriculture and industry, the island has 30 percent unemployment. This is not visible, though, because the French government heavily subsidizes the place and takes care of the population.)
Since leaving Le Marin aboard Kestrel on Jan. 11, we've worked our leisurely way up the west coast, stopping at several pretty anchorages and finally arriving at this village at the foot of the Mont Pelee volcano. A political note: May 8, 1902, the volcano split open and engulfed the town in a giant fireball of superheated gas that burned almost 30,000 people to death. The volcano had telegraphed its intentions for weeks, spewing ashes on the town, leveling a nearby plantation, for example, in an avalanche of boiling volcanic mud, lava, gasses and rocks. But the spineless Governor had been in denial because the big planters and other powers-that-be would lose money if the city were to be evacuated. Evacuation also would have influenced an upcoming election in which black voters were mounting an unprecedented challenge to the white European power structure. So the gov formed a committee to "monitor" the volcano--sort of an early-day version of Homeland Security and FEMA combined. The local paper helped out too, persuading people there was no danger. We take note that 12 ships at anchor here, where we are now, were also destroyed that day.
Next stop, Dominica.
John & Kathy, s/v Kestrel
January 24, 2007
[Adrian O’Donovan passed away at 11:45 a.m. Irish time.]
February 27, 2007
As we write this, Kestrel's crew is preparing to clear out of the British Virgin Islands at the Customs House in Soper's Hole on the island of Tortola, and sail across The Narrows to St. Johns, in the U.S. Virgins. This will be the first time the boat has been in U.S. waters since May, '05, when she left Chesapeake Bay bound for Ireland.
Beginning with Martinique in early January and continuing until about ten days ago, we were sailing up through a volcanic chain of rain-forested, mountainous islands. While the weather was overall tropical, mostly breezy and pleasant, the high peaks wore hats of cloud that spawned sudden toad-strangling downpours that might last 30 seconds, and gave the impression in the middle of the night that someone had just dumped a bucket of water through the open hatch over your bunk (the hatch being open, of course, to catch the cooling breezes; we preferred this to the deep freeze enveloping our friends and loved ones back home). We've stopped in Dominica, Iles des Saintes, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts and Sint Maarten. Some islands lacked dependable, protected harbors, and the anchorages often were what the guidebooks call "rolly"--meaning subject to swells at an angle to the wind that can set the anchored boats to rocking and rolling. For some stretches, there was no good place to dock and take on water and fuel (or we preferred a more rustic route). But Kestrel has been up to the job, with enough capacity for these commodities that we've never felt pressed. (At one point, in the midst of a long period with no place to put a hose directly into Kestrel's tanks, John made several trips up and down a hill to a French village fire station where he was allowed to fill our five-gallon water can to roll down through the narrow cobbled streets and then dinghy out to Kestrel. But that was an abundance of caution--and good exercise.) We got used to dealing with such minor inconveniences while enjoying the attractions of each island, each with its strikingly distinct culture.
We arrived in the British Virgin Islands on the morning of Feb. 12 after a 15-hour overnight passage from St. Maarten and realized that, while the other islands had been more exotic and challenging, we had arrived in sailors' nirvana. Guess it was the sudden intimacy of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, surrounded and calmed by islands and reefs. The hills here are lower, gentler and scrubbier than the lush volcanic peaks we'd left behind. We sighed as we sailed in with the rising sun between Ginger Island and Round Rock. Over the past 30 years, we had chartered sailboats in the BVI (and/or the U.S. Virgins) a few times, but now we felt a new appreciation for the abundant white sand beaches, clear turquoise waters, tame and friendly reef fish, peaceful anchorages (some surprisingly uncrowded and rustic) and accessible onshore amenities. And you can get oatmeal-raisin cookies and superchunk peanut butter, things John had not seen in a year.
It turns out that island hopping involves a lot of paperwork. Since we began the Caribbean portion of this grand tour, we have visited customs offices to clear in and/or out of a given country seven times, and we have flown the courtesy flags of French, Dutch, various independent and British jurisdictions. (Arriving at the Dutch side of the half-French, half-Dutch island of Sint Maarten/St. Martin one morning, we had just anchored among dozens of other boats in Simpson Bay Lagoon and were settling in, putting away sails, looking for our lost shaker of salt, when suddenly we were boarded by a boatload of uniformed, armed Coast Guard officers. They wondered pointedly if we were in distress, since some 30 or 40 minutes had passed and we had not dinghied ashore to check in with the authorities. They asked us to produce all our safety gear, our ship's documents, etc. We passed muster and they politely left. We headed for Customs and Immigration forthwith.)
Again, we'll spare you most of the "how we spent our vacation," non-sailing details. But here are a few of the memorable moments of our passage through the Windward and Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles:
*Finding "real" homegrown fresh tomatoes at the local farmers' markets on most of the islands--in January and February.
*Sailing past the smoking, wasted flanks of Montserrat, where the 3,000-foot La Soufriere Hills volcano erupted 1995-1997 eventually destroying the island's capital city of Plymouth. The volcano is still quite active and dangerous. We sailed up the east side because sailors are warned that on the other, downwind side, you might find a cloud of ash falling on your boat. In any case, no one is allowed to pass within a designated 2-mile "exclusion zone" because of the danger of a blast of deadly superheated gas and rock. We could see the hardened reddish-brown flow where one square kilometer of new land was created in the eruption, with lush, pristine forest on either side. We could see smoke rising from trenches carrying fresh flows up near the top. We anchored on the safe northwestern side of the island.
*On Dominica, a trip through unspoiled rain forest with four members of a Swiss flying (and sailing) club, all of us in a skiff rowed up the mangrove-lined Indian River by our guide, local entrepreneur David, AKA "Big Pope," who seemed on a first-name basis with the iguanas reclining on the tree limbs.
*On Guadeloupe, getting up at 3:45 a.m. to navigate the commercial channels of urban Pointe a Pitre, in the dark, to make a 5 a.m. drawbridge opening--the only chance each day. This admitted us to the River Salee, which runs north through a mangrove swamp and past coral reefs where the surf foams and boils. The river bisects the island, creating a worthwhile shortcut.
*Coming unexpectedly into the super-yacht field in the Simpson Bay Lagoon on Sint Maarten. We thought St. Bart's (which we skipped) was supposed to be the haven for the super-rich and their gigantic floating palaces (apparently the seagoing equivalent of the onshore trend toward supersizing houses into McMansions). Boy, were we stunned to find that almost every marina had been converted to accommodate boats 125 to 250 feet long, and almost all those berths--dozens--were taken. We repaired humbly to an anchorage out in the middle with all the other normal sized boats--where we were promptly boarded by the Coast Guard. See above.
*Finally, and really most importantly, meeting all sorts of people too numerous to list here (Beacon is a great conversation starter). Two examples: Little Bit, the four-foot-tall feisty British woman who single-handed her small boat across the Atlantic at the same time John was doing likewise. Turns out she'd been listening in on his ham radio net and was happy finally to meet Kestrel's skipper. And Charley, the South African giant (6'10"), who fought in the Angolan conflict, is restoring a 30-foot Dix-designed sloop he intends to sail home (he has already crossed the Atlantic, in other boats, 5 times) and is a gourmet boat chef who brought three kinds of barbecued meat and an assortment of other delicacies for dinner aboard Kestrel.
Hearing of our plans for yet another two months or so of meandering passages through Paradise, a family member recently asked plaintively on the phone: "How is it possible to do nothing for so many days?" Funny, but for us there has been so much to do and see and learn, we actually feel rushed.
FYI, itinerary over the next two months: US Virgin Islands, the Spanish Virgin Islands (Culebra), Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and then up through the Bahamas -- Great Inagua, Acklims, the Exumas, the Abacos -- and finally home. We're thinking Beaufort Inlet (North Carolina) sometime in early May.
John and Kathy (with Beacon the cat)
Kestrel is preparing to leave the north coast of the Dominican Republic this afternoon on a passage of almost three days, bound for Long Island in the Southern Bahamas. For a week, we've been pinned down by unseasonal monsoons--a stark demonstration that we've moved out of the zone of reliable trade winds and fair weather--aka "Paradise"--into areas of less predictable conditions.
We are docked at a place called Ocean World Marina, near the town of Puerto Plata. On our first night here--the prolonged toad-strangling rain, with high winds, caused what the locals--including the customs officer--all assured us was the worst flooding in their lifetimes. Roads became impassable. The water in the marina turned to a chocolate-colored mud pudding choked with flip flops, styrofam chunks, cans, bottles, tree trunks and other debris that had washed down a tributary. The rains have persisted, we are told, because of a low-pressure trough parked over the region. The rains are finally slackening, sea state and winds turning more favorable. (Be assured we are not complaining, and we are happy for friends in Washington who are enjoying fine weather and cherry blossoms. Seriously!)
Ocean World is not the worst place to be stranded, but it is one of the more surreal combinations we've experienced on our trip: on one hand is the sea, covered in wind-driven white froth, with thunderous surf crashing against the seawall, and in the past day or so a barge with its broken-down tug being driven slowly aground on the nearest beach--more casualties of the violent weather. On the other side of us, a five minute walk up the docks, is a neon-lit Vegas-style casino done up in baroque sea-themed architecture, with 35-foot tall mermen guarding the entrance and intricately-tiled dolphins and whales climbing the facade. And behind that, a quite nice adventure park with a huge dolphin lagoon, Bengal tigers, sea lions, snorkel reefs, a rain forest/bird sanctuary, restaurants, swimming pools, beaches. There's lots of interaction with the animals (swim with dolphins, let the wild parrots land on your shoulders, get kissed by a sea lion, etc.). Free access to the park is a perk of the marina, so one or the other of us has gotten pretty chummy with Blanco the white Bengal and several dolphin pairs. Busloads of tourists arrive regularly from nearby resorts, to be tended by a well-trained staff of several hundred. This is a new development, apparently part of the tourist boom that is lifting most if not all boats on the Dominican part of Hispaniola, in part because of its bargain prices. This is an enclave, separated from the surrounding "real" population, in what is apparently the style of resorts here. Still, whether in the town or in the enclave, we've found the Dominicans to be uncommonly friendly, energetic and helpful.
For sailors, the marina part of this complex is merely a useful new port on a coast that does not have many refuges, but the docks could have used a better designer. Let's just say they are odd and, especially given the recent state of sea surge, winds and tides, difficult: too high, made of rough concrete with hazardous edges, ill-placed cleats and pilings. But it's only a minor irritant, and we have nice neighbors--a couple who sailed from Oregon on a Cal-34 (a sloop of size and vintage similar to ours)--and Beacon has made a separate peace with Mr. Roberts, their grey cat.
At our last update (Feb. 27), we were leaving the BVI on our way to the U.S. Virgins. We found St. John almost as rustic and pristine as on our last visit years ago. St. Thomas, of course, is much more developed but charming in its own ways. (Don't miss Duffy's Love Shack, at Red Hook.) As sailors, however, we were struck in all the Virgins by the degree to which ferry traffic has ruffled the waters. From Virgin Gorda Sound in the BVI to Caneel Bay on St. John, many "protected" anchorages now are constantly roiled by the frequent passage of ferries, often from dawn to midnight. They vary in size, speed and etiquette, but it seems their numbers have gone up geometrically. We were still able to find just enough quiet, ferry-free bays with good snorkeling to satisfy us. But we fear for the future.
Kestrel spent ten days of early March in Red Hook, on St. Thomas, while Kathy flew home to D.C. for a short week to take care of some business. John used the time to do minor repairs and varnishing.
On March 16, we left the Virgins behind and sailed to Culebra. Although it's a separate island, Culebra is an entry port for Puerto Rico and we were able to clear customs by phone there. If you're looking for a sleepy, quiet, artsy place with what is billed by Fodor's as one of the best beaches in the world, Culebra is your island. No ferry wake here! We hated to leave, but figured we'd better start racking up some miles. (Our goal, of course, is to cover the remaining 1100 miles and reach home port in Chesapeake Bay well ahead of hurricane season.)
We next entered what we will remember as
the "concrete zone." The northern coast of Puerto Rico proper
is known to be rather inhospitable, with few good stopping places. After
a pleasant sail, we landed at a place called Puerto Del Ray Marina,
billed as the largest marina in the Caribbean. We found it to be a soul-killing
place of featureless concrete piers stretching into infinity. The marina
provides gas-powered golf carts that roar up and down the docks, carrying
boaters from their berths to the facilities on the land. Yikes. (We
chose to walk, thanks.) But we had to stay another day because Kathy
had to meet a deadline on a writing project.
On March 21, we shoved off for the two and a half day passage here to Ocean World. With good wind at our backs, we used the tradewind rig that got John across the Atlantic last December to get us here in good shape. And then came the rains. And now at least we're up to date on the latest news of Anna Nicole Smith and Sanjaya. Happy April Fools Day.
Fair winds to all,
John and Kathy
All is well aboard Kestrel as she nears the end--at last!--of a two-year Atlantic circle. We are in Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos, preparing to leave tomorrow (Wednesday) on a four-day, roughly 480-mile Atlantic passage north to Beaufort Inlet on the North Carolina coast. There, our friends John and Barbara Holum are waiting to welcome us back to the home continent. The determining factor in our departure time is the promise of favorable winds as we cross the gulf stream, where conditions have been awful for several days.
We reached the Bahamas on April 2 after a rough, wet and tiring but fast two-day Atlantic passage from the Dominican Republic. Since we made landfall at Crooked Island to begin working our way up through the Exumas and the Abacos, the sailing has been splendid. Kestrel has covered roughly 400 miles since then, nearly all of them under sail. Engine run time over the past month has been less than 50 hours, mostly for charging batteries and freezing the fridge holding plate.
We can confirm that the Bahamas is/are really BIG. We underestimated the challenge of weaving our way through an archipelago of hundreds of islands and cays circled by coral reefs and strung out over hundreds of miles. We've seen a formidable array of these low-relief, table-flat limestone slabs, set in the most astoundingly clear, dazzlingly turquoise, aquamarine and almost-emerald waters imaginable. Crossing the banks (shallows) west of the Exumas was like sailing through a swimming pool. The deeper waters to the east of the cays in many places were so clear you could see the patterns of grass and sunlight on a bottom 70 feet below your hull. Many islands have little or no human population, but we've frequently been welcomed by large numbers of nurse sharks, lemon sharks and sting rays, not to mention the countless reef fish. We were surprised to find so many unspoiled spots so close to the U.S. The catch is that many of them can be reached only by boat. There is an instant camaraderie among the lucky few who find themselves together in such places.
As in some stretches of the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore, each low strip of Bahamian land looks like the next; there are few landmarks. As in the Scottish Hebrides, sailing here requires careful navigational homework and steady concentration; the waters are prone to fast currents and strewn with hard, sometimes uncharted obstacles--in this case coral heads instead of rocks--with almost no navigational markings. And in many places, modern day electronic navigation aids become useless and only old-fashioned eyeballing with good sun at your back will do. We know that some of you are experienced at "reading" the waters in this way (dark blue means good depth, pale aquamarine warns of shallowing, a sharp deep brown or black means a possible coral head at the surface, etc.), but we are novices.
Kestrel is running a week or two behind schedule, but we still expect to be home well ahead of the hurricane season. We've been delayed by increasingly volatile weather as we've moved north of the Tropic of Cancer and closer to the systems moving off the U.S. continent.
Answers to frequently-asked questions: Yes, our 32-foot sloop seems to have gotten even smaller during the four-plus months that we two and Beacon the cat have lived aboard. Yes, we are all three still speaking to each other, although the tone and volume may vary. Yes, we will be happy to get home. (We were specifically looking forward to fresh local peaches from Capitol Hill's Eastern Market come summertime. We were saddened when our friend Jim Ashford e-mailed us word of the fire that destroyed it--but encouraged by descriptions of the rebuild effort.) We are grateful to those who've looked after the homestead during our absence.
Next stop, the US of A. See you there. J & K, s/v Kestrel
May 15, 2007
A smashing welcome from John and Barbara Holum on Kestrel's arrival at Beaufort, North Carolina (roses, balloons, dock dancing, feasting), and an absolutely wonderful time for a couple of days of R&R aboard Solveig IV, the Holum's new (to them) 58-footer. We are about to work our way up "the ditch", aka Intracoastal Waterway, toward Chesapeake Bay, ETA Herrington Harbour North (home) a day or two this side of Memorial Day. Thanks, everybody, for your concern and good wishes. Good to be back in the USA. J&K