500 Miles

Editor's Note: written Thursday, July 18.  No pictures for now, thanks to thin WiFi.

We’re at anchor White Bluff Harbour, Great Inagua, Bahamas.

That was easily the most boring sail.  104 hours.  4.5 days/4 nights, non-stop from Fajardo, Puerto Rico to Great Inagua, Bahamas.  We sailed completely past the island of Puerto Rico, across the Mona Passage, past the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Turks and Caico’s up to the Bahamas.  If anything had gone wrong, we would have drifted downwind until we hit Cuba. 

I’m going to take all the suspense of this.  We had exactly three things happen that were exciting. 

  • 2am, we were jibing our way along the north coast of PR, headed inland toward Arecibo.  Emily and I were on watch, and we were getting ready to jibe and head back out toward open water.  In the blackness that is the open sea at night, I saw something just off our starboard stern.  It was big, black and very close.  Holy crap!  It was a boat.  It took me about 2 seconds to realize that this was a Coast Guard boat, but with its lights off.  It was coming to check us out, and their goal was to sneak up on us.  They did.  What they didn’t know was that we were just about to turn into them.  After I pointed them out to Emily, they turned on their search light and ‘looked us up and down’.  I waved.  What else do you do?  There was nothing stealthy about us.  We had all our running lights on, we even had all the lights on in our main salon.  Emily and I were even wearing the nerdy, big bulky orange life jackets.  (We pull out the big guns for overnight passages.)  After another ‘look’ they seemed to decide we were harmless, or least not carrying human or narcotic cargo and peeled off.  But jeez!  Really?  Did they have to sneak up on us like that?  If they didn't have a mounted machine gun, I would have punched them in the arm.

 

  • Sheet Lightening – our big fear on this trip was crossing the Mona Passage, a sixty mile stretch of water between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.  The Puerto Rican trench and the Caribbean Sea both come up from thousands of feet of depth, and try to shove water through this narrow passage whose most notorious part is called ‘The Hourglass’.  We’d heard horror stories.  Twelve foot waves, boats catching air as waves broke beneath them and the hull coming slapping down on the waters surface beneath them.  You had to wait for the right weather. 

One reason we chose to do this long 500 mile passage was that, as we spent a couple of days in Culebra, a perfect weather window emerged.  Our plan was to head to Fajardo, top up on fuel and provisions and then make a run all the way to the Bahamas.  That's what we did.  The Mona Passage turned out to be a non-event.  We actually had to motor through it, the winds were so light.  In fact we motored through most of the first two days.  My goal was to maintain 5 knots the whole time.  We I didn’t realize was that our weather window would actually be a ‘window’ to the weather happening over hundreds of miles.  You can see a long ways when out at sea, especially when the weather is up in the clouds.  We were sailing past the Bahía de Samana (Samana Bay), when I first saw the clouds light up like a flickering light bulb.  Lightening.  I immediately pointed the boat into the massive bay, preparing to take an unscheduled stop-over.  

But the lightening never come down out of the sky.  There were no bolts, per se.  Just flickering light bulbs.  Sheet lightening.  For three nights this went on to varying degrees.  Sometimes the horizon would flash like a camera.  Sometimes we would watch for fifteen minutes as Christmas tree-like flickers would pulse across hundreds of miles of clouds visible to us from our little pocket of safety (with a metal pole that stuck 56’ up in the air).  We never once had a storm overhead.  But the weather we could see was enough to unnerve us a bit.  And now I know what sheet lightening looks like.

 

  • The Reef – after 102 hours, we arrived on the coast of Great Inagua, Bahamas.  We were low on fuel, so the plan was to pull into White Bluff Harbour, a rather generous name for some shallow water tucked behind a few rocks.  As we neared our planned entrance to the ‘harbour’ I saw a line of rocks sticking out just above the surface.  I called for spotters on the bow.  We were looking for the entrance.  The water was amazing.  I called out: "47 feet'.  Our current depth. ‘We can see everything,’ came the reply from the bow.  Every rock, plant and contour.  It was as if the water wasn’t even there.  That’s clarity.  But there was no break in the long line of teeth-like rocks sticking out of the water. 

    This line went on for miles in both directions.  And it was not on the chart.  The next place to tuck in was 17 miles away, and the sun was getting low.  It was either find this entrance, or continue to Matthews Town and anchor in the dark.  Both options were a little daunting.  And the troops were getting restless.  I won’t get into the psychology of being on the move non-stop on a small boat for nearly five days…with five kids.  But we could use a break.  I squinted hard at the charts on my iPad.  Turns out there was a line of rocks shown—a reef, but it was so long and continuous that I had mistaken it for a contour line.  I looked again.  There was a break, about a mile and a half ahead.  It was peppered with rocks as well, but it was wide enough, and just deep enough for our boat to get through.  We zeroed in.  With four pairs of eyes on the bow, I turned into the line of teeth.  As we pointed in, waves broke on the reef to both port and starboard.  

With pinpoint precision, the rocks marked on the charts appeared.  Just inside the reef was a lagoon that extended for miles: a narrow strip of bright aqua water between the ocean—which moments before had been 1700 feet deep—was now 5.5 feet deep.  We needed 3.5 feet of depth.  Well, technically 3.6 if we didn’t want to hit the bottom.  It came up fast: 28 feet, 12 feet, 8 feet, 4 feet.  Then it deepened again.  Emily said, "I think we're in."  We found ourselves on the inside of White Bluff Harbour.  We set the anchor, dove on it to check it, and flopped down on the deck.  104 hours later, we had stopped moving.  That’s a nice feeling.  Emily made a big dinner complete with delicious orange/carrot juice (with ice cubes, thanks to our new fridge/freezer), lentil soup with kielbasa sausage and the last of the Kit-Kats for dessert. 

We slept well that night.