July 3, 2020

Homeward bound: USVI to Florida

After more than six weeks of coronavirus quarantine in St Martin, we made the decision to leave the French island and sail 110 nm overnight to the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

We'd held off on sailing to the Virgin Islands because hundreds of other American cruisers in the Caribbean had poured into the USVIs at the start of the pandemic and anchorages were reportedly very crowded and resources harder to come by compared to our comfy spot in St Martin. 

The captain happy to be on the move again after weeks of quarantine
We'd hoped to have spent time in the Virgin Islands in late-March before sailing from Puerto Rico to the Bahamas in April, but every island border in the Caribbean was still closed to cruisers, so we had very few options available to us. With no end to coronavirus and border closures in sight, we needed to prepare ourselves and Borealis for a longer passage back to the States.

Where Borealis sat in the Caribbean and where we needed to be (north of
the Fla.-Geo. border) for insurance during hurricane season

Returning to America

Some questioned our decision and timing to return stateside, but as we neared the two-year cruising mark, we made the decision (before Coronavirus) to head back to the U.S. We'd visited nearly every island in the Eastern Caribbean chain and as another hurricane season was quickly approaching, we were feeling travel fatigued and ready for our next (land based!) adventures. We were also looking forward to seeing our family and friends back in the States since our last visit was a year ago.

So on April 28, we raised our spinnaker sail in light winds and calm seas and bid farewell to St Martin. While we were ready to move on, we were also sad to sail away; we'd arrived to St Martin days before Coronavirus exploded, and while we didn't get to explore as much of the island as we would have liked,  were incredibly grateful to the island and it's people for graciously hosting us when the world turned upside down.

Just before dusk, we lowered the spinnaker sail and raised the smaller poled-out headsail, which slowed our speed a bit but was much more manageable to handle overnight with a single person at the helm while we took turns sleeping. At noon the following day, we sailed into Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas, USVI and officially looped the Eastern Caribbean islands!

Prep, prep and more prep

We spent a busy few days in St Thomas getting ourselves and the boat ready and making trips to the laundry, grocery store, and propane filling station. With so many cruisers "stuck" in the Caribbean and hurricane season quickly approaching, the U.S.-based Salty Dawg Sailing Association had arranged weekly Homeward Bound flotillas of boats heading back to the States. For a nominal fee the SDSA provided shore support, weather, and routing services to participating vessels -- more than 200 boats! And with a 1,000 nm passage looming ahead of us (about 8-10 days), we very much appreciated the support of other sailors and experts. 

We'd originally planned to leave with the rally on May 3, but after making all of our passage preparations, we awoke that morning and called it off, because the long-range forecast would have required us to motor in light winds for more than half of the trip, which would have been pushing the limits of Borealis' 100-gallon diesel tank, and we have a pretty low tolerance for risk when it comes to offshore sailing. 

How we transport our groceries in the islands, since we often have to walk a mile or two 

The good news is that the delay gave us more time to explore St Thomas, including a hike up to Paradise Point for some great views of the harbor and a visit to our favorite USVI brewpub, Tap & Still, for burgers and fries on the day it finally reopened for takeout!

A week later, on May 10, we raised our sails and headed out of St Thomas on what would be our longest passage. Our planned route would take us east of Puerto Rico, Turks & Caicos, and the Bahamas islands with an anticipated landfall near the Georgia-Florida border.

Our route was almost directly downwind, so we sailed on a poled-out headsail in mostly 15-20 knot winds and 4-6 foot seas for the first 24 hours. 

America or bust!

Downwind sailing

Sailing downwind can be very slow since the wind is pushing the sails from behind, and with only a smaller 100 percent headsail on Borealis, it was going to take work for us to keep up our speed over such a long passage. 

When sailing with the wind behind and in larger seas, boats can also roll badly from side to side. We tried to position Borealis to ride down the face of the swell, but waves often caught us on one side of the boat and we'd roll heavily, even burying the toe rail in the water as we came down a wave, so we spent our first few hours quieting shifting items in the cabinets, greasing squeaks, and even catching some rolling fruit.

Eating and sleeping on passage 

All this noise and movement can make sleeping and moving about the boat difficult. We learned from previous passages that it's important to sleep early and often, especially the first 24 hours, until your body adjusts and you can fall into a sleep routine. Offshore sailing with only two people aboard can be mentally and physically exhausting since one of us always has to be awake and helming the boat -- and tired sailors can make poor, dangerous decisions.

Sleep shifts

During the day we take loose shifts at the helm, typically we'll spend a few hours at the helm while the other prepares meals, takes a nap, or enjoys some downtime reading or listening to music. With no cell reception and nothing to see but water, passage making at its best is rather boring. 

Overnight from 8 pm until 8 am we take 3-hour shifts at the helm while the other person sleeps. To help stay awake in the middle of the night - other than adjusting Borealis' course and sails - Sara listens to podcasts or audio books and Nick watches movies on a tablet. 

Rather than sleep in our usual cabin in the aft of the boat, we typically set up a lee cloth (to keep us from rolling) on the starboard settee in the salon, which is thankfully long enough for Nick to stretch out and sleep comfortably, and is within shouting distance of the cockpit in case of any trouble overnight. 

Nom, nom

When it comes to meals, we like to prepare as much of our food as possible, since a rolly boat makes it hard and dangerous to stop dishes, knives, and hot food items from sliding across counters and causing injury. 

For breakfasts we ate granola with oat milk or yogurt and fruit. At lunch, we like to eat dried fruit and nuts, hard boiled eggs, wraps, precut veggies with hummus, and sliced cheese and dried sausage (thank goodness for those 3 months in French Caribbean Islands). For snacks - especially overnight while on watch - we keep pretzels, granola bars, and apples at the ready. 

A typical snack lunch aboard Borealis

Since we never like to boil hot water while underway (we know of cruisers severely burned from hot sloshing water) we prepared and vacuum sealed 12 one-pot meals that we could simply reheat on the stove each evening. 

12 days of pre-prepared meals ready for vacuum sealing

As expected, our first 24 hours were exhausting, especially since we had squalls overnight and seas built to 6-8 feet, but we were making good progress and had averaged about 120 miles at just over 5 knots of speed in the 24 hours since leaving the USVI.

The next 24 hours was much of the same; we gybed the poled-out headsail from time to time, which took about 15 minutes of work on the deck rerouting the pole and lines, and sometimes longer in bigger, rolly seas. We occasionally saw a cargo ship on the horizon, but had little other excitement and overall good sailing conditions. 

On our third morning out, May 13, the winds died to under 10 knots and the seas flattened, so we spent a few hours hand washing a some clothing items, taking showers on the back deck, and cleaning up the boat, which made us feel so much better. Passamaking often feels more about surviving and not thriving, and a nice shower and restoring order to the boat is always a good boost for morale.

For the next 12 hours we motorsailed, until the winds kicked back up that evening and we could resume sailing.

Divert, divert 

It was during this period, when we received word from SDSA and our weather router that Tropical Storm Arthur was forming north of us in the Bahamas, and their recommendation was to find safe harbor in Turks and Caicos rather than to proceed further north and into to the storm's expected route. 

As we prepared for a change in our plans and route, we realized a block of our Navionics chart was missing all detail! (Nick has the software on his iPhone, and that also showed the same blank square.) We were crossing the shallow banks south of Turks & Caicos that night, and thankfully our paper charts showed no hazards, but we spent most of the night hours sailing through a blank square! 

The blank square in our navigation charts; we've sailed 6,000 miles and have never had this happen

Around 3 am, Nick woke up Sara because of lightening and huge black clouds on the horizon; we put on our rain gear, reefed in the headsail, and prepared the boat and ourselves for heavy weather. For the next few hours, we watched the storm creep closer as the wind piped up to 25-30 knots and the seas grew. But as the sun started to rise, we could see it had mostly passed south of us and we had escaped the worst of the dark clouds and rain on the horizon — and this is why we always sleep during the day when we can! 

Just after 6 am, we tacked into Providenciales, Turks & Caicos; as we approached the island, we called Provo Radio, which monitors T&C waters, and after giving them our personal and boat information, they graciously offered us safe harbor from Tropical Storm Arthur. The island's borders were still closed, and we were not allowed ashore, but we were grateful to anchor behind a protected reef along the north shore for the next 36 hours as huge rolling storm clouds passed north. Thankfully, we have satellite communications aboard Borealis so were able to share our change of plans with our families. 

Nick glad to be safe at anchor in Turks & Caicos

Rolling storm clouds on the horizon as Tropical Storm Arthur passed through the Bahamas

After Tropical Storm Arthur passed, the forecast called for several days of very light trade winds, so once again we altered our planned course. Instead of sailing east of the islands, we opted to cut through the central Bahamas, where we'd be able to stop for fuel, if necessary. 

The Bahamas islands were still closed for cruising, but the government had recently established a formal exemption process for cruisers like us transiting from the Caribbean back to the States, which allowed innocent passage through Bahamian waters and pre-approved stops for fuel, weather, or rest. We applied for an exemption and were approved to stop at one of two locations in the Exuma islands. 

Off we go, again!

We'd sailed 470 miles in just under 4 days, but still had more than that to go. So on May 16, we raised our sails and called Provo Radio on the VHF to thank them for providing Borealis and crew refuge. 

We sailed away from T&C wing-on-wing, with the poled out headsail on one side of the boat and the mainsail on the other side and we were making a fast 7 knots of speed downwind in 15-20 knot winds and 4-6 ft seas. 

All was well until we surfed down a large wave, which backwinded the mainsail and spun Borealis around and into the wind. Thank goodness we'd rigged preventer lines on both sails, so we avoided damage to the sails and boom. With loudly flapping sails, we quickly brought in the headsail, turned upwind and brought in the mainsail, and then righted our course and brought out the poled out headsail again - a slower but simpler and safer sail plan! 

All smiles sailing wing-on-wing until near disaster struck

We had good sailing most of the day, but as forecasted, the winds fell under 10 knots that evening. For the next 24 hours, we sailed the spinnaker when we could and motorsailed on the headsail when winds fell too low. 

There was little excitement, other than finally catching a mahi, after losing two off the stern of the boat earlier this season. We also reached 5,000 nautical miles sailed since we started cruising in 2018 — considering we average about 6 mph that's a lot of miles and time at sea! 

Sunrise coffees on Borealis

Late the next morning, we arrived to the fuel dock at Staniel Cay, Exuma, Bahamas. We'd sailed another 270 miles in just over 50 hours! Chubby, the Staniel Cay Marina fuel dock attendant was the first person we'd seen in 9 days, and with the Bahamas still under quarantine and business very slow most days, we weren't sure who was more excited to see whom! 😀

Say it ain’t so: Engine troubles

After filling our diesel tanks, we started the engine and prepared to pull off the dock, when Nick noticed the fresh water that cools the engine was barely coming out of the exhaust. We motored ahead a few more minutes when suddenly the boat started to vibrate and the heat gauge rose —we were overheating, and even though we were in the middle of a channel, we quickly dropped the anchor and turned off the engine.

Nick quickly narrowed the problem down to a shredded impeller, which controls the flow of water to help cool the engine and if worn or damaged can restrict water flow. Unfortunately, we had to wait for the engine to cool before he could take apart the engine and begin the work. Four hours later, he had the engine heat exchanger cleared, impeller replaced, and the boat put back together.

The captain sweating it out for a few hours in the hot engine compartment

The shredded impeller

We feel lucky that this was the first mechanical issue we had aboard Borealis in our two years of cruising, and thankfully the engine worked perfectly again after replacing the impeller. 

We anchored in the next bay over, Big Major, which offered better protection for the night and is best known for being the famous swimming pigs beach. After all that unplanned excitement, we poured ourselves big drinks and enjoyed our freshly-caught mahi for dinner that evening while watching the pigs ashore until the sun set in spectacular fashion. 

Delicious steaks from the mahi fish we’d caught the day earlier 

The next day, Nick did some follow-up checks on the engine and inspected the hull and prop in the crystal clear water. While swimming under the boat, we saw a large stingray and several nurse shark. 

A nurse shark circling through the anchorage

While we were incredibly disappointed about not being able to further explore the Bahamas this season, which was among our favorites in all of the Caribbean, we wanted to be respectful of the Bahamian government and its people, so with a fully functioning engine and full diesel tanks, we set off early on May 20 across the Decca channel in flat calm seas and very light winds towards Florida.

For the next 24 hours we motorsailed in light winds, we had wild lightening storms overnight but no heavy winds or rain. The next morning we spotted a dozen or more empty cruise ships on the horizon anchored just off the Berry islands. Later that day, we spotted even more cruise ships and tankers anchored off Hens and Chicks Islands about 60 miles off the Florida coast. 

A small flying fish, which we often find on the deck in the mornings
A parking lot of cruise ships off the Berry Islands, Bahamas 

Empty cruise ships anchored off the coast of Florida

Just before 5 pm on May 22, we made our final tack into the Florida Straits and the fast current of the Gulf Stream. We spent the early part of the night dodging cargo traffic in the busy shipping channel, and just after dark, we spotted the glow of the Florida coast on the horizon.

Land Ho!

At 2:30 am on May 23, we dropped anchor in West Palm Beach, Florida. Light winds and calm seas meant we'd sailed the last leg much faster than expected, hence our middle of the night arrival, but thankfully we'd transited the inlet on our way south in 2018 and were familiar with the area.

Almost two weeks after leaving the USVI, Borealis and crew arrived stateside — for the first time in nearly 2 years. Despite the late hour, we celebrated our arrival with a cold beer!

We'd sailed 1,010 miles in 7 days, 19 hours time and averaged 5.5 knots in mostly downwind conditions.

While it wasn't always easy or without mishap, it was overall a really good passage, and it's nice to have the worry of it behind us. 

Never mind that we have another 1,000 miles ahead of us to get back up to the Chesapeake, it feels so good to be closer to home! 

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