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Joys and perils of a sail-powered adventure

Sailing North with Frank

By Heidi Wellnitz

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The 2011 hurricane season was safely behind us and Christmas had passed. Frank and I put our plan in motion. We had been discussing relocating Luana L, our beloved 45 ft sloop, to Puerto Rico.

For many years St. Lucia had been an ideal base for excursions. We had made many unforgettable trips around St. Lucia, diving in the pristine waters between the majestic Pitons, enjoying the beautiful coral and the abundant fish. Occasionally we would sail to Martinique, stocking up on our favourite French wine; to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where Bequi holds a special place in our hearts. Grenada, where we once took an enchanting road trip by car, discovering its hidden waterfalls and exploring the old fort, was also part of our sailing itinerary. When we headed north we would often go to English Harbour in Antigua with its strong maritime tradition.

We cherished a lot of vivid memories, gathered during the 1970s and 1980s, but now we were eager to rediscover the Spanish Virgins, the US and British Virgin Islands. We also wanted to be closer to our Culebra vacation home. 

So, immediately after New Year holidays, we headed from the US mainland south to St. Lucia. There we met Dan and April, friends from Florida. Dan brought his fishing gear, promising a steady supply of freshly caught dinner.

It took us a couple of days getting the sloop ready for sea and stocking her. Necessities, of course, included rum, wine and beer. Overheating required last-minute repairs to the engine’s cooling system. The forecast for the next several days promised good sailing, with north-easterly winds of 20 to 25 knots and moderate seas. Perfect sailing conditions were in the offing for Luana L’s journey north to Puerto Rico. 

Journey begins

January 9: Frank, as skipper responsible for the crew, confiscated our passports. He gave us a safety briefing including the use of jack lines and life jackets. Customs had cleared us for departure and we were eager to get to bed, anticipating an early departure the following morning.

January 10: We left Rodney Bay Marina early in the day. Without disturbing any neighbours we eased out of our slip. The sky was fair and the wind was as forecast. Passing Pigeon Point, we hoisted sails and, under a broad reach, sailed to the south-west corner of Martinique, passing Diamond Rock. Entering the wide Fort-de-France Bay, we had to lower sails and motor into a stiff wind that was straight into our teeth. 

We anchored in Pointe de Bout, in front of the hotel on the south side of the bay, where the CSA had a conference many years ago. Pointe de Bout offers a stunning panoramic view of Fort-de-France and the mountains beyond. I stayed on board while my shipmates went ashore to see the sights and clear Customs. In his usual manner, Frank unceremoniously took possession of all the keys including the key to start the engine.

We had an uncomfortably dramatic situation when they returned. The anchor started to slip and the boat began to drift towards the reef. Quickly, Frank started the engine, raised the anchor and reset it in sandy ground further out. I shuddered with fear at the thought of the anchor slipping while I was alone on board, helpless without keys and unable to start the engine.

January 11: We left Pointe de Bout for Portsmouth Bay in Dominica early in the day. The GPS mapped 76 nautical miles. Unfortunately, however, the weather had changed. From fair skies, we now had occasional showers and the winds had increased to a boisterous 30 to 40 knots with higher gusts. This was definitely not the weather we were expecting. The upside was that we saw many beautiful rainbows. Time to adjust the sails: a big reef in the mainsail and the jenny.

Sailing along the west coast of Martinique, we could see Mount Pelee shrouded in dark, ominous rain clouds. Entering the passage to Dominica, we encountered high Atlantic swells coming all the way from Africa. The waves were coming in broadside. Luana L was being lifted to the peak by one and sailing down into the valley of the other, her bow ploughing through the waves as water crashed over the deck. Rain squalls and rough seas were with us all the way to Scot’s Head, a rock at the southern tip of Dominica. In all our many years of sailing in the Caribbean we hardly ever had to use foul weather gear. But we were using it now.

Even under reduced sails we were flying past Scot’s Head and were soon in the wind- shadow of the island. Dominica’s tall mountains blocked the wind, so we furled our sails and motored in calm water along the west coast towards Prince Rupert Bay. Showers and rainbows accompanied us along the way. At the mouth of the bay we were greeted by a briskly approaching water taxi. Braving the bad weather, the young man offered his services to get us into port and we gladly accepted. Having reached the anchorage with his assistance, we picked up a mooring and secured the sloop. It was 1700 hours and we were happy to be safe and dry in a sheltered port in the quiet comfort of the cabin. We had had enough foul weather for the day. 

Foul weather gear

January 12: The wind and weather had not changed. Frank called the water taxi to take him to Customs. When he had completed the formalities of clearance, in and out, we set sail for Isle de Saint, Guadeloupe, about 23 nautical miles away. After securing everything, above and below deck, we headed out to sea.

If anything, this day was worse than yesterday. It was another day for foul weather gear. Squall after squall kept moving through. The wind was again in the low 40s, higher in gusts. Halfway through the passage, a threatening dark cloud appeared in the east. As it came closer and closer, we knew it would hit us hard. In preparation we already had reduced reefed sails to the size of two tiny handkerchiefs.

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The storm hit us like a hurricane with winds of 57.5 knots (72 mph). The rain was driven horizontally and felt like pins and needles. Even with such reduced sails we were flying along at 8.5 knots. That might not sound very fast, but it is close to the boat’s maximum speed. Frank, at the wheel, was using all his knowledge, experience and strength to keep her sailing. The situation did not seem to bother him. At least, that is the impression he gave us. The wind was so strong that its force flattened the waves. White, foamy streaks were on top of the water. The squall lasted only 15 minutes but it felt like an eternity. To protect myself against the rain, I hid behind Dan and prayed as hard as I could. The squall passed, but the weather was still bad. However, compared with those 15 terrifying minutes, it now seemed quite tolerable.

We arrived in Isle de Saints, Guadeloupe, late in the afternoon and had a luxuriously uneventful night.

ENJOYABLE

January 13: We weighed anchor and departed Isle de Saints at 0600hrs. Next stop Deshayes, on the north-west tip of Guadeloupe, 38 miles away.

The wind was still blowing hard but at least the sun was shining. The sail through the passage between Isle de Saints and Guadeloupe was rather enjoyable. A five-mast square rigger glided past on our port side. It offered us quite a spectacle when it suddenly opened all its sails at once. The wind died as we again reached the leeward coast of Guadeloupe and we had to use our engine. As we approached Deshayes, we raised sails again and arrived at our anchorage in the bay at 1130hrs.

The strong wind gusting down from the mountains channelled through the narrow bay and although we were moored it felt as if we were again in the middle of a strong storm. The wind tunnel effect made us very uncomfortable but there was no escape. Frank and Dan lowered the dinghy and fought wind and waves all the way to shore in order to clear Customs. It was clearly a very rough ride. On their return trip they had a hard time keeping the fresh baguettes dry (picture, far left).

This was the fifth day of our trip and we had spent four of those days battling harsh conditions. By now we were tired of the bad weather. Our son, captain of a private yacht, kept insisting, in our e-mails back and forth, that he was picking up no mention of bad weather all through the Caribbean. There was nothing out of the ordinary, he said. All his weather sources reported winds of 20 to 25 knots. That was not our reality.

What were we supposed to do? Go back or go on to our intended destination, Culebra, Puerto Rico? The wind continued unabated, so we set a second anchor for the night. We witnessed a beautiful orange-red sunset. Was this a promise for the next day? The old sailor’s saying goes: 

Red skies at night – sailor’s delight,
Red skies in the morning – sailor take warning! 

January 14: Nevis, our next stop, was 75 miles away. We had to get up at 0400 to be under way by 0500. The strong winds had not abated. What were we going to face? Sailing out of the bay, we left with heavily reefed sails. As the mountains of Guadeloupe disappeared in the distance, the weather started improving, to our great delight. The dark clouds and strong winds were gradually replaced by a brilliant blue sky and the Caribbean Sea turned from a steely grey to beautiful shades blue. This was the Caribbean we knew and loved. We were sailing again with full sails, speeding along under a broad reach at an easy seven to eight knots and enjoying every minute of it.

Soon Montserrat appeared on the horizon, about 30 miles away. Sailing along the windward coast of Montserrat, we had a clear view of the devastation caused by the volcano. Lava flows from Soufrière Hills had come down the mountain all the way into the sea, destroying everything in its path. Smoke was still escaping from the top and cracks in the mountainside. Luckily for us, no ash cloud was pouring out of the mountain into the air as we had experienced on a previous sailing trip between Antigua and Guadeloupe. At that time we were breathing ash, which covered absolutely everything. Approaching Deshayes, it looked as though smoke was rising from the mountains. It was ash.

Frank recalled a CSA meeting in Montserrat many years ago and an enjoyable walk through the ‘dormant’ crater of the volcano. Now many of Montserrat’s residents were living elsewhere. Those remaining, as we could clearly see, had made their new homes on the north side of the island. 

Kingdom of redonda

Leaving Montserrat behind, we sailed by Redonda, about two miles offshore on its windward side. This rock between the islands of Montserrat and Nevis, known as the Kingdom of Redonda, has an interesting story dating back to the 19th century. (The curious may want to Google it.)

The weather had improved so much that I decided to take a turn at the wheel. By early afternoon we had arrived at the outlying banks on the south side of Nevis. This is a good fishing area and we caught two Spanish mackerel. That night dinner was fresh fish instead of chicken or canned meat. 

We made our way to the leeward side of Nevis. Passing the town, we headed towards the moorings on the west side of the island. There were plenty of moorings to choose from, with few boats occupying them. Nevis is a beautiful and tranquil place. But for most sailing yachts, Nevis is off the beaten track. After picking up a mooring, we were able to swim and snorkel in crystal-clear waters, for the first time on this trip. This was by far our best sailing day. Sitting in Luana L, drink in hand, I enjoyed the beautiful view of this island, with its cone-shaped mountain covered with lush tropical vegetation. 

After all that bad weather at sea, we decided to take a day to rest and explore the paradise of Nevis.

January 15: During the morning we went ashore by dinghy to explore the capital, Charlestown, a charming mixture of old colonial architecture and new buildings. The occasional gingerbread house added a Caribbean flair. Some old buildings were undergoing restoration. A local church had a Text for the Day on a blackboard for all to read: ‘Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life – Proverbs 4:23’. We thought that was a good message.

After replenishing our fresh fruit and vegetables from the open-air market, we headed back to Luana L to relax and enjoy the rest of the day.

Stunningly beautiful

January 16: By 0530hrs we were on our way. Destination St. Maarten, 68 nautical miles north. Sailing along the west coast of Nevis towards St. Kitts brought a special delight. The sun came up behind Nevis Peak in a glorious sunrise. By 0730 we were off St. Kitts, where a cruise ship was entering the harbour. St. Kitts is stunningly beautiful and green. We were soon in the passage between St. Kitts and Statia (Sint Eustatius). Here was our waypoint towards Philipsburg, St. Maarten. Dan continued to fish. This day he hooked a beautiful green and gold two-foot long dorado (mahi mahi). Dorados are good sport fish and before Dan could get the fish securely into the boat, it jumped off the hook. This was ‘Dan’s big one that got away’.

The sail north on a close reach was another beautiful day in the Caribbean. The weather allowed us to roll out all the sails, so we were clipping along at a good speed. Approaching St. Maarten we saw two imposing cruise ships at the pier in Philipsburg. Luana L needed diesel fuel. The cruising guide indicated that diesel was available in the harbour. As we passed through the harbour buoys, 2 ft swells followed us in. Leaving the shipping channel, the cloudy water quickly became very shallow. Luana L draws 6½ ft below the waterline and has an Australian winged keel (like the wings on an aeroplane). This means if the boat runs aground she cannot be freed by heeling to one side. It is therefore prudent to have at least another 2 ft of water below the keel. 

Quickly realising that we might run aground, especially with the waves complicating the situation, Frank turned her around and we left the harbour. We headed towards Simpson Bay, also on the Dutch side of St. Maarten, where we dropped anchor at 1500. Simpson Bay is a safe anchorage, but big swells kept the boat rolling heavily from side to side. None of us got much sleep that night.

January 17: Everybody was very tired. The dinghy was readied and we motored under the bridge into the inner bay, where most of the large yachts were moored. The first mission was for Frank to comply with regulations, to clear the boat and crew in and out. That accomplished, we headed towards one of the many marinas. Frank inquired where to buy diesel and was directed to a gas station on the other side of the bay. We tied up the dinghy at the gas station’s dock and Frank filled the jerry cans he had brought for that purpose. During this time I purchased fresh supplies. After all the ‘must do’ chores were done, we had a relaxing drink in a bar, under palm trees, watching the busy marine traffic going back and forth between the inner and outer bay. Small boats can pass under the bridge, but bigger yachts have to wait for the bridge to open at certain times. Boats are always lined up on either side of the bridge waiting to go in or out.

January 18: We decided to leave just after midnight. We weighed anchor and motored out of the bay headed for our next stop, Caneel Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands. Once outside, we set sails and started running downwind. As soon as there was sufficient daylight we re-rigged the sails ‘butterfly’. After almost 12 hours and 94 miles we reached Round Rock Passage entering the Virgin Islands. Passing safely between Ginger Island and Round Rock at about noon, we saw a ship caught on the rocks and reef, west of an island called Fallen Jerusalem. This was a good reminder never to take anything for granted and to take our navigation seriously. 

Calm waters

We left the big swells of the Caribbean Sea behind as we entered the calm waters of the Virgin Islands. As we made our way west towards St. John, a cruise ship was leaving Road Harbour, Tortola. After another 28 miles of sailing from Round Rock we arrived at Caneel Bay in the afternoon. After securing Luana L at a mooring, Frank and Dan lowered the dinghy and motored over to Cruz Bay, St. John, to clear Customs. 

Our son Marc was docked in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, with Miss Michelle, a Westport 130. After calling him on the radio, informing him of our arrival, he jumped into his 29 ft dinghy and came over to St. John. He picked me up and we went to Cruz Bay. After finishing the official business, we loaded our little dinghy onto Marc’s and returned in style to Luana L. We had not seen him for at least four months, while his yacht was spending the winter in the Caribbean, so the reunion was a happy one. We had a particularly good time comparing sailing adventures.

January 19: We started on the last leg of our mission very early in the day. After releasing the mooring lines, we headed for Current Cut. Passing through, we were back in the Caribbean Sea. With the wind and 5 ft swells from behind and the sails rigged as butterfly, we surfed past the St. Thomas harbour entrance at about 0800 and continued on into the Virgin Passage. Finally, we had Culebra, our final destination, in sight. Sail Rock, a bird island and radar beacon in the middle of the passage, was quickly left on our port side. At 1230 in the afternoon we passed the entrance buoys of Ensenada Honda, Culebra, our hearts filled with relief and gratitude for a safe voyage. After a short prayer of thanksgiving, with sails furled we motored toward our anchorage and dropped anchor.

After 10 days and 460 nautical miles of foul weather and calm, of pleasant moments and some anxiety, we had brought Luana L to her new home. It was an adventure that made 2012 a year none of us would ever forget.