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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Rum Cay and Conception Island

These Bahamian Islands just keep getting better.

Picture a three mile long curving beach of the finest powdery sand. Turquoise water laps at the shore, palm trees overhang the beach, a few homes sit tucked back behind the low limestone layers that line the back of the beach. Anchor your yacht a few hundred yards offshore and take the kids to the beach. You have the place to yourself, all day. A half mile walk along the beach and you find the marina, a few small rental villas and a nice bar. Nicely hidden, friendly and welcoming.

Back from the beach is a small network of roads, a couple of stores and some local homes. A small neatly kept white and blue church, a little government building and medical clinic. Perhaps there are three hundred people on the whole island. We are lucky, the weekly mail boat just arrived, bringing fresh fruit and veg so we are able to stock up, at surprisingly reasonable prices for these islands.

We stay for three days, the anchorage isn't very protected but it's good enough for us to weather a small front that brings winds from all directions during our stay. Once the wind came back east we set off for Conception Island, an uninhabited national park some twenty miles north west. It's windy and overcast when we get there, but we pick our way in through a few coral patches and anchor in more crystal clear water, there is just one other boat around and once again we have the most beautiful beach in front of us. Maik and I take the kids for a walk despite the grey weather, and we find a trail through the the other side of the island, just a few hundred yards wide at this point. The Eastern shore is more wild, the soft limestone etched into curves and hollows by the constant nagging of the atlantic waves. The winds also bring flotsam to this shore, the beach is littered with the depressing evidence of our littering of the oceans. Plastic in all forms lines the beach; bottles, buckets, poles, nets, barrels, mouldings from an Audi dashboard (?!), shoes, ropes and much more. One day, when the oil has run out, these beaches will be picked clean for their precious hoard but today, it's sad to see.

Yet the line of garbage cannot really detract from the stunning beauty and loneliness of the place, it just heightens the contrast between the natural inhabitants of the island and the advanced civilisations to windward....

The next day is much, much nicer - the wind dies and the sun comes out and we walk, swim and just play on the Beach. Gesa and Maik wander off to walk a trail that leads around the east side of the island whilst I look after the kids. It isn't the toughest childcare duty - they scoot off to the rock pools and spend two hours creating an 'orphanage' for snails and hermit crabs. I get a chance to sit and relax and occasionally check that their blonde heads are still visible on the rocks over there.

In the afternoon, we get in the dinghy and go for a big adventure. We motor a mile and a half down the shoreline to a point where the sea creeps inside the island to form a network of shallow creeks and sandflats. Mangroves line the edges and the shallow warm waters are a perfect home for turtles, rays and sharks. The landscape is outstanding, very different from anything else we have seen, and we see many turtles, a few rays and a couple of sharks scooting away from us across the shallows. It's beautiful, and only the gradually declining sun forces us back to the boat before darkness.

The next day, we snorkel on the reef and the kids continue their snail and crab tending. Just off the beach I see a barracuda in the shallows so get my mask and swim out to have a look. He swims away and I follow, he's mid sized, about three feet, and nice to watch. I look at the reef fish as I go too, until I look up and note the the barracuda has stopped, turned and started to follow me. Now I know they hardly ever get close to people, but he's looking mean and I think I'm in his territory. I swim back towards the beach and he follows me. Who's the boss now?

Later, Maik and I note another dark shape in the shallows, this one is a ten foot long shark cruising around, very neat to see. We also saw a dolphin in the bay, and a group of three maybe dolphins, maybe pilot whales. The range of wildlife at the island was fabulous.

Now it's time to head on towards Georgetown, where Maik has a flight booked on Saturday and we can restock in a decent sized town which is apparently a mecca for cruising sailors. We'll enjoy the company and activity for a while, I'm sure, then head on for quieter cays after a few days.

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The Bahamas weather game.

We play a bit of a cat and mouse game with the weather here, looking for different places to anchor, and choosing our travelling days, depending on the forecast. To give you some idea of how that works, and why weather is such a feature in our daily life right now, here's my little primer on Bahamas weather.

What happens is that the weather systems are dominated by a bubble of high pressure that lives in the Atlantic and is then disrupted by low pressure depressions rolling off the US coast and across the north atlantic. If the high pressure is stable and large, it squeezes the normal winds into a narrower, faster band and we get stronger winds from the north east. We all go hide behind the western side of an island.

The depressions that head across the US and Atlantic are the big winter storms, often packing near hurricane force winds up north, and ending up in Europe dumping rain and strong winds on all of you over there. They form when a large lump of cold air 'captures' a wedge of warm air and the resulting flows start to turn and move as the rising warm air is replaced by the cold air. Each side of this wedge of warm air is a 'front', and as the depression moves eastwards, these fronts trail across the Bahamas. Because the air is very different each side, the winds change dramatically as they pass.

First comes the warm front. The normal north easterly winds move into the south then around to the south west as the front passes. In weaker systems, this is often fairly gentle winds, nothing to worry much about. For the stronger fronts, we scoot across to the Eastern side of an island for a bit. But watch out, because that's usually a bad place to be when the second, cold front arrives.

The cold front brings a line of dark cloud, a sudden change in the wind, into the north, and strengthening too. Not surprisingly, it's also colder. This is when you hunker down and play a board game or make sure you are in town exploring instead of sitting on the beach being wind and sandblasted. It passes after a day and usually things go back to nice and calm for a bit until the next system repeated the pattern after a few days, or if not, the high pressure gets stronger and throws a few days of strong trade winds at us. This year has been a bit less settled, so we have generally had three days of really nice, a couple of days of a front, a couple more of strong trades then back to really nice.

But it's never really cold, nor really windy, more inconveniences than dangers but up here, you can't take you eyes off the weather forecast like you can further south where it's always blowing from the east.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Photos from South Caicos

Much delayed, but here are a couple of collages of photos from our days on South Caicos. We've also added photos to posts below too. To see these in full size, just click on them.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Long Island to Rum Cay

(photos added, click to view big versions)

We met our friend, Maik, on Long Island and he has joined us for a couple of weeks., We are having fun, since we haven't seen each other for a couple of years and Maik was a friend of Gesa's (through the volleyball club) before he became a friend of mine too, so the three of us are enjoying being back together.

On Long Island we swam and snorkeled, played on the beach, explored the beautiful churches in the village (photos one day, promise) and had a few beers at the local marina bar.

Yesterday was windy and a day for shore-side exploring, so we decided to walk to the 'blue hole' about four miles away. A blue hole is where the sea has, somehow, carved out a deep deep cavern in an otherwise shallow and sheltered spot. Some are ashore, this one was on the coast in a sheltered bay. It is said to be the deepest in the world, at 633 feet, and only about a hundred feet around. Worth a visit, everyone said. Hire a car, they said.

Seventy dollars?!? we said, and decided we could walk four miles, so we did. As we were nearly there, with the kids complaining and us wondering how four miles can take two hours, a nice guy stops to ask if we need a lift. We're OK, we say, and he directs us to the junction we need to take. We keep walking, and about twenty minutes later he returns. I'm on my lunch hour, he says, and I got my lunch and some time so figured I come back and give you a ride anyway, it's a bit hard to find. We gratefully jump in and he takes us the last half mile.

The blue hole is beautiful indeed. Three quarters of it is surrounded by limestone clifs, eaten into jagged shapes by wind and rain. The last quarter is open to the bay, and across that opening the sand is just a couple of feet below the water. You can walk or swim along this edge, then into the hole where it drops away to deep blue nothingness. People had talked (joked?) about sharks and so some of our group were a little nervous but I swam all across and dove down the wall to see the fish and coral living there, it was amazing. I also climbed out at the edge, walked gingerly up the cliff edge to where an overlook allows you to jump twenty or so feet down into the hole, and took the plunge - that was fun.

As we were eating lunch, another car arrives and we get chatting to the chap who has come for a quick swim here. He's Canadian, as so many are here, and has spent a lot of time on Vancouver Island. Gesa asks if he could give us a lift back to Clarence town and sure, he's going to meet some friends for a drink anyway. We get a ride back, nice chat and a great guy to know as we head up to British Columbia. We buy him a beer, meet some other cruisers we recognise in the bar and have an enjoyable afternoon.

Leaving the bar to return to the dinghy, we pass the local packing house where vegetables and fruit are gathered on Tuesday before the ship arrives to take them away on Wednesday. We buy a good range of bananas, limes, papaya, tomato, squash, eggplant and, in these islands that are so expensive, are delighted to find that these all add up to five dollars and forty cents. Having just paid four dollars for each beer, this is fantastic.

We are entertained by new friends on a neighbouring catamaran and have a fun evening, we are going the same way tomorrow so look forward to seeing them again.

Today we left fairly early, at nine am, to sail the thirty five miles up to Rum Cay, a small island to the north. After a slightly rough start we settle into a nice rhythm as the seas slowly subside and we glide along at top speed. Our journey is twice interrupted by fish - this time we are successful and take two ten to twelve pound mahi-mahi, we decided to fish for a second because we knew our friends were coming the same way so we can share the bounty. By the time we arrived, the fish were cleaned and in the fridge. This evening we had a very nice dinner of grilled mahi steaks, grilled egplant and boiled rice. Yum.

We are anchored off a huge sweeping sandy beach so I think I know where we will be going tomorrow, and a little exploring of the island should be in store. We're probably here till Saturday so it'll be fun to have a look around.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Arrived in Long Island

So despite leaving on a Friday, and the 13th at that, we have arrived safely here in Clarence Town, Long Island. Time for breakfast then ashore to explore and meet up with Maik, who has been hanging around here for a week whilst we slowly travel northwards. He's been at a luxury resort on the north of the island, so we're not feeling too guilty.

More later. N.

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The romance of the high seas

So my Valentines Day gift to Gesa is the delights of another overnight sailing trip, never say I'm not the romantic - this is an exclusive starlit sailing cruise to a beautiful Bahamian island town, people pay good money for this experience.

The good news is that it is a beautiful starlit night, gentle breeze and a calm sea. We are slipping along gently and making good progress towards Clarence Town, on Long Island. This morning we picked our way through the coral heads in Abrahams Bay and said farewell to Mayaguana. After a few hours, we were very settled and nearing a couple of little islands called Plana Cays. I sat back in the cockpit to read my book - Moby Dick - when a whale appeared a few hundred yards away. How appropriate. I watch a couple of puffs of mist appear above the waves as it breaths and call 'whale-ho' to the crew below.

Issie gets her lifejacket on quickly and is soon on deck, but Gesa is being her safety conscious self and takes longer to find and don her lifejacket before coming up to see. So it is that Issie and I see the whale briefly lift its head then dive, the flukes of its enormous tail rising gracefully out of the ocean before it slides down to the depths. It doesn't reappear and we didn't get a photo but that's OK says Issie, she saw it and has a picture in her head so she will draw it for us. I can tell Gesa is disappointed though.

I'd chosen to come quite close to these little islands because we could run along the 'drop off' where the island's edge falls away into the ocean depths. Sailing along the hundred foot contour we should have a good chance of catching fish as these undersea cliffs cause vast quantities of nutrients to well up from the deep and a lively food chain develops around them. I'd already seen fish jumping in the water and something fairly big cruising across our path, but no bites yet.

Then we get one, the line goes whizzing off the reel and we swing the boat round to stop and reel in our catch. Sadly, it escapes the hook pretty quickly but we are left with line and lure attached. Out it goes again and Gesa can go back down and rest.

For about two minutes. Zizzzzzzzz goes the fishing reel again and we repeat the procedure, this time the fish is hooked good and proper. We reel in, it pulls back and takes more line, I reel in again. Slowly but surely it gets closer and closer to us, this is a big fish. Maybe it's the whale, says Issie. After fifteen minutes we can see the silver shape twenty feet beneath us. It isn't a whale, but it is big. That shape is familiar though, and it slowly dawns on us - it's a s***ing barracuda. All that effort to reel in one of the biggest ones we've seen to date. We manage to get it right alongside and close enough to snip the line close to the hook, leaving us with our lure but no hook and the fish alive and fairly well - the hook will rust away within a week or two. We watch him swim off.

The line goes out again and we get a third bite, but this is quickly lost as the line breaks near the hook and this time the lure is gone too. That's enough for today, shame, I was looking forward to something edible.

As night falls we settle into our routine of three hours in bed, three on deck, although the kids bug me for the first two hours of my 'off watch' so sleep is a thing of dreams, so to speak. Midnight till three am, that's my next time in my bunk.

Max lost a tooth today, and it has been all wrapped up and placed under his pillow for the tooth fairy. He is very concerned about the practicalities. Firstly, she won't come if she might be seen, so we must all be asleep, I have promised to snooze a little during my watch so she has a five or ten minutes chance to sneak aboard. Then, of course, how will she find us? Can she fly over open water? Won't the waves be too big? Ah, problems problems, but I have a feeling she will find a solution somehow.

Well, the wind has risen a little and we are cruising though the night at six and a half knots, which will have us in harbour for breakfast - hope it lasts.

All's well. N.

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Friday, February 13, 2009


So here we are on our first Bahamanian Island, one of the 'out-islands', about as far away from Nassau as you can get. Mayaguana is a twenty four mile long island, rising to little less than sixty meters and covered in low scrub and the occasional palm tree. Some five hundred people eek out a living here, mostly from fishing, and everyone we meet is friendly and welcoming. The village is neat and tidy, we can get a few fruit and vegetables in the store, and there's even a little playground for the kids to enjoy. It's nice when the 'graffiti' on the playground is the two times tables.

We've also met some wonderful cruisers here, a couple and their fifteen year old son who have ended up being here a month, two weeks by choice and the last two because of the strong winds. Dad and son spend much of their time fishing and hunting down lobster in the bay, and I was invited to go along with them. Having never used a fishing spear before, this was my chance to learn. We grab our wetsuits, flippers, mask and snorkel and zip out in the dinghy to the barrier reef at the edge of the island. Slipping into the four foot deep water, armed with spears, we peer into every crevice and gap in the coral heads. Within minutes, they have speared a large fish and it is flopping around in the bottom of the dinghy. A small lobster quickly follows and I'm feeling a bit of a dunce having seen nothing, let alone caught it.

I swim off on my own a bit, hunting out new ground and then, yes, in that gap I can see it. A nice big spiny lobster (they are like big crayfish, not the fiercely clawed lobster of New England). I arm the spear, which is a long sharp pole with a piece of elastic at the rear end. You hold the elastic between thumb and forefinger, stretch the pole back along your arm then release to shoot it forward. I point it at the unsuspecting lobster. Zing. I miss. The lobster is now somewhat less unsuspecting and retreats into his hole. I arm the spear again and wait. He creeps forward to take another look. Zing. I miss again. My, I'm bad at this. Point blank range with a lumbering crustacean and I can't even graze him. This time he's got the message and has retreated further. I peer in and wonder. Hmmm, perhaps this hole has a 'back door'. I swim around the rock and sure enough, he's creeping out and trying to run. Ha. Found you.

At this point I learn that lobsters actually have a remarkable turn of speed. Flapping his tail wildly he disappears off across the reef. Darn. Then he stops. Mistake. I catch up with him, look him in the eyes and zing, he's on the end of my spear. He's not a happy chappy, of course, but I'm pretty pleased and get him back to the dinghy and into the bucket. The others are impressed; apparently once they get off and swimming you've usually lost them. Lucky me to get a dumb one. He weighs a couple of pounds, which means he'd cost you forty bucks at a restaurant, so that'll be a nice dinner.

Meanwhile the other guys have bagged a couple more fish but we're all getting cold so decide to round off the trip with a few conch and call it a day. Off to the eel-grass field in about six feet of water, we drift with the current and pick up about ten conch, which will make a decent amount of salad and other meals. Being rather slow moving molluscs, our hunting skills are not really challenged in this battle.

Back on the boat we show off our catch and invite our new friends over for drinks and have an enjoyable evening swapping stories. They are heading the same way as us, so we hope to meet again a few times, it'd be nice to fish some more. I'm shown how to clean a conch, which is a messy procedure but leaves us with a nice lump of meat and a beautiful shell, we'll have to work on conch recipes since they are plentiful here.

The lobster is put on the grill, and is very nice with garlic butter, he easily feeds Gesa and I although the kids won't even try it. I tell Issie that if they won't try it now, then I am NEVER going to let them order lobster at any restaurant where I am paying the bill. I'll have to remember that.

Today we do school in the morning, and I work with Max on his maths, which he clearly has a feel for and is doing well, unlike Issie who can but won't. With reading and writing it's the other way round so I guess we're doing fine on balance..... Then I take the kids ashore to find a loaf of bread and we have a fun trip in the dinghy. The bay we are in is very shallow, so we are anchored about half a mile from shore, in seven feet of crystal clear water over gleaming white sand. We skim across this turquoise mirror in the dinghy, with the dark shapes of coral and rock appearing to left and right as we go. At one point, a very black shape appears on the sea bed in front of us and we slow to take a look. It is a huge ray, swimming along the bottom. It swims away from us and we follow for a while then continue on our way. After our trip ashore, we find another ray, this one is more than huge, he is as wide as the dinghy, four feet across and doesn't move when we approach. I have the underwater camera so I capture a few shots but it doesn't show the scale of this beautiful fish. Elsewhere, the dark shape of a nurse shark is spooked by our approach and leaves the scene but we recognise him as he goes. This is a very different place to anywhere we have been before.

We then had lunch and all went off again in search of a beach. The visible beach is behind an inner reef of low lying coral and we couldn't get to it by dinghy but eventually we just anchored the dinghy and waded though the knee deep water to the beach. The edge of the island is made up of huge thin slabs of limestone, which I guess must be quite young stone as it is not very compacted and is easily fractured and chipped away. We explore with interest and suddenly begin to notice fossils and shells embedded in the stone. The kids are now thrilled to be real paleontologists as they grab a harder rock and chip away at the limestone. Issie quickly frees an old conch shell, and in the harder, more weathered rocks nearer the shore we find large shells sticking out of the eroded substate. It's fascinating, and I'd love to know how old these rocks are. The kids couldn't have a better introduction to geology and the age of the earth than talking about this stuff on a deserted beach at the shore of a crystal clear lagoon. It's magical.

Tomorrow we have to leave this place, sadly, because the weather has turned fine and we have a good window to get to Long Island, where our friend Maik will meet us in Clarence Town to join the boat for a couple of weeks. We'll cruise gently from there, but to get there is 120 miles. Thankfully it'll be calm downwind sailing, a big contrast to the tough trip here and I'm looking forward to it. Gesa is delighted to hear that it is probably our last overnight trip...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Arrived in the Bahamas

After a rough and windy trip, we made it to Mayaguana in near record time. We came into Abrahams Bay though the gap in the reef and carefully dodged shoal patches and coral heads to anchor and rest whilst waiting for the sun to get behind us for the trip to the other end of the bay. (Look up our current position to see what we're talking about here) With five miles of shallow water upwind, the anchorage was choppy and uncomfortable, but let us rest a bit.

After lunch we upped anchor again and followed a path through the scattered coral heads, with Gesa on the bow calling out the dark, shallow patches of water over the walkie-talkie. Slow going, but slow and steady is safe, and eventually we are anchored at the populated end of the bay. We're really in the 'out-islands' here, there are just four other boats and the bay has nearly a mile of shallow water in front of us before we can get ashore at the dock. That will wait for tomorrow when we will check in and explore.

The strong winds, 20-25 knots for a week now, are getting us down. Anchorages are bumpy, swimming is less fun so we don't do it, going ashore is wet and there is a constant noise of strong wind in the rigging. It's forecast to settle down again on Thursday and we really hope we'll get back to the bright sunshine and balmy warm breezes that are the norm around here.

Well, I've just been served a bowl of popcorn to go with my beer, so it's time to sit back and relax at last.

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A wild ride round the Caicos Bank

We are at sea again, on passage for 150 miles, about a twenty four hour trip. This is becoming a bit of a habit, hopefully Gesa will forgive me one day.

We wish to be in Clarance Town, Long Island by Saturday. That either means a near constant series of long day trips, with tricky harbours at some of the stops, and no slack for poor weather, or it means two overnight hops, staging and recovering at Mayaguana for a few days, so this is what we are doing.

The Caicos islands rest on the rim of the Caicos Bank, the barely submerged summit of an enormous undersea mountain rising three thousand meters form the sea bed. The direct route to the Bahamas is across this bank, cautiously searching for a seven foot channel and dodging growths of coral. For fifty miles. Tough. We chose to go around it.

We then have two choices, around the north or the south. South is thirty miles longer, but it means that for a large part of the way, we will be in the 'lee', or shelter of the bank. No shelter from the wind, but it breaks up the big atlantic swell that is running right now. So here we are, having recently rounded the south west corner of the Caicos Bank and reaching fast on a wild, twenty five knot night. Ty Dewi is loving it, going at full speed under just half her mainsail and the little staysail jib. We are hanging on and hanging in there, some more than others. Gesa and MAx are confined to quarters, though thankfully not actually seasick so far.

We left south Caicos at midday and have made record time, rarely under seven knots which is fast going for us. We are aiming to arrive at about ten in the morning, which gives us a chance to get inside the reef at Abrahams Bay, Mayaguana, anchor for breakfast then wait for the sun to pass overhead and give us the much needed 'over the shoulder' sunlight that will let us pick our way across the coral strewn bay to the settlement four miles to the East.

I suspect I will have little sleep until then but otherwise, we're doing fine and will report our arrival in the morning.

All's well. N.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Fiesty little crab

We were exploring a beach here in South Caicos and found lots of interesting things, as you can see from the photo. There was bright purple coral, large urchin and sand-dollar shells, lobster carapaces and other remains, and much much more.

The kids were happily rockpooling when a crab scuttled out of the undergrowth and raced towards them. They screamed loudly. About the size of my hand, the little fellow was fast and aggressive. He had bright blue claws and swimming 'paddles' in his hind legs. I went to pick him up in the usual fashion, finger and thumb behind his shell, but he opened his claws wide and snapped, like lightening, behind his head where my fingers almost were. I almost screamed! I think Gesa did.

He was a very feisty little fellow, turning to face us and going on the defensive whenever we got close. We didn't get too close, but used a small stick to see his amazing reflexes a few more times to capture him on video, then left him in peace, he deserved it.

A little video here

The kids, meanwhile, abandoned the rock pool and became palaeontologists, 'digging up' and amazing t-rex skeleton that looked like it was made of coral....

Voyages around Puerto Rico

Let me take you back to some of our sailing trips around Puerto Rico a couple of weeks ago. As you may recall we were entertaining our friend Helen, over from Amsterdam, and had a fun couple of days on the island of Culebra. After that we made for the next island to the West, Vieques. You pronounce it Vee-eck-ez, and until some ten years back it was almost a closed island, being dominated by a navy and airforce range which actively bombed the heck out of a small part of the island at regular intervals.

Now returned to civilian use, the island's population has fallen dramatically and most of the employment has dried up, so it's economy and social fabric is in tatters. Many areas are still peppered with debris including live munitions so some clean up has gone on but otherwise much of the area is a 'nature refuge' conveniently closed to the public. Nature thrives, being another example of the law of unintended consequences; the best way to protect the environment being the act of blowing a tiny part of it to smithereens for a few years. There is no big box tourism, no resorts, few flights, it's great.

We only visited for one day, to see one thing - Mosquito Bay. Now that sounds a little less than thrilling but the big attraction is that it is the most bio-luminescent bay in the northern hemisphere. People travel a long way to see this, usually only by kayak or electric boat tour from the nearby village of Esperanza. Tiny bugs, phytoplankton I believe, give off a phosphorescent green glow when disturbed. We've seen this in the wake and waves when sailing at night, but you need good conditions, a dark night and to be sailing through a bunch of the little critters at the time. Strangely enough, the best I'd ever seen was one dark night off the coast of Essex in the UK, amazing glows in every disturbed bit of water.

Well, we had the chance to go here on a new moon, and a Friday so very few weekend tourists would be there yet. It would be perfect. But few things worth having are easy. A big swell was running in from the Caribbean Sea and the couple of moorings at the mouth of the bay were untenable, we would be bounced out of bed. We crept further in, crawling forward slowly in the murky water until we just had eighteen inches of water under our keel. Here it was settled enough to be tolerable, and we laid out a second stern anchor to hold us pointing into the swell. We explored, visited the nearby beach and waited for dark.

At nightfall we paddled into the bay, and found a magical world of eerie green light at every swish of the paddle. The kids dangled their hands in the water, swirled and twisted to make the bugs glow, and marveled at the sight. As it got darker and darker we began to see the shooting trails of fish darting about below us. We were entranced, and after about an hour I went for a swim, which was surreal. My mask was covered by green sparks as I swam, and I could hold my hands in front of my eyes and waggle my fingers to make glowing outlines of my hands. A wonderful experience, we all loved it.

The next day we sailed on to the 'big island' of Puerto Rico, a long forty mile day to the village of Patrillas on the south coast. We were about half way across when a fin cuts the water alongside with a telltale puff of air. Dolphins! Helen, Gesa and the kids were straight up to the bow to watch them playing with the boat, as I went to get the cameras. More and more appeared, and soon we had ten or twelve swimming along with us, dancing and playing as they do. They stayed for about twenty minutes, and it was the best 'dolphin experience' the kids and crew have ever had - I've been lucky enough to see them offshore a few times but this is the first time we've all been aboard when they've turned up.

After the dolphins leave, the only thing left on Helen's to see checklist for the day was a fish on the end of our line. Nearing the end of the trip, the ocean obliged but, sadly, it was a big barracuda so back it went. Still, she got to experience the thrill of seeing a fish on the end of the line, hauling it in and on deck, then getting to set it free again. Those barracuda are mean, and this one was no exception. We think we got him back in alive, and without any teeth in the skipper, more importantly.

The nice thing about sailing the way we've been going is that the wind is almost always behind us. We are able to cover a lot of miles in relative comfort. In reverse, this route is tough but it is one of the most traveled ways for sailors to get from Florida out to the Leeward and Windward Islands. To do so you have to pick your weather, ride the wet and windy cold fronts that shift the wind into the north, and sail a lot at night to take advantage of lighter winds in the lee of the cooling islands once the sun goes down. And be ready to wait, and wait. People sit for days waiting to go the next thirty miles east. We just poke our nose out and go west, it's so much more comfortable.

After Helen left, we headed on towards Ponce, our last stop before departing Puerto Rico. Leaving Salinas, a combination of problems and mistakes left us gently but firmly aground in the mangrove mud that surrounds the approach to the harbour. It was quiet, so we were in no danger and we took an hour or so to lay out anchors and ease the boat back into her desired six feet of water, then tidy up and take stock. We could still make it to Ponce but the fuel dock would be closed and the book said it was a noisy place to spend the night. A few miles before that is Cajo Muertos - of Coffin Island - so called because of it's shape resembling the aforementioned wooden box. We'd heard good things about the little island, a national park, so we stopped there for the night and loved it. Despite only having a few hours, we strolled on the near deserted beach, swam in the clear water and relaxed a bit after the hectic past few weeks, ney months of non-stop travelling and entertaining. As the sun set, a pod of pilot whales, small creatures almost dolphin sized, came into the anchorage and cavorted for a while, nicely rounding off a very pleasant afternoon. We were ready to leave now, calmer, quieter and better rested, we filled up with thankfully cheap diesel in Ponce, found a few last minute provisions and set off for the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Photos from Puerto Rico (2)

- Family photo in the mountains
- Hiking in the rainforest
- The tower at the top
- And the view from it

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Photos from Puerto Rico

- Dolphins swam with us on the way from Vieques
- The view from our anchorage, those mountains dominate
- Rainforest views
- The canopy, whilst walking in the forest

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009


Here we are in South Caicos, safely arrived at dawn after a full day of motoring in calm weather. WE are anchored in ten feet of the clearest water I have ever seen. Time for a tidy up, shower and visit to customs. More later.


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Nearing the Turks and Caicos

It's ten o'clock at night and we're now less than twelve hours away from our destination, South Caicos. The wind has died away in advance of the approaching cold front and we are motoring on a calm sea. The crew are much better, everyone partook of dinner tonight and I am under strict instructions to wake Max up during my next watch (3-6am) so that he can sit on deck and look at the stars, which he really enjoyed last night.

Not much more to report, I am reading up on the Bahamas and very much looking forward to our next couple of months here, there is a great deal to explore.

All's well. N.

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Exploring Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans, and their helpers back in mainland America, have worked hard on their landscape. Large areas of four lane highway, big box stores in sprawling malls, a preponderance of half finished reinforced concrete housing, large areas of low cost, low income, low attractiveness homes and many other visual delights accost you as you drive the developed areas of the low coastal plain.

Yet, despite all their efforts, the country cannot avoid being beautiful and beguiling. From our base in the middle of the southern coast the unescapable vista was the central mountains, a series of ridges and ranges that dominated the background of any view and photograph that wasn't looking out to the glittering caribbean sea.

Those mountains draw you in, dare you to explore so we rented a car and drove up into the Forest Torro Negro, one of many areas of various forest parks around the country. Torro Negro is high tropical rainforest, and we headed for an area of National Park with well defined trails and somewhere obvious to leave the car. The drive up was stunning, rapidly escaping the attempts at sprawling suburbia and switchbacking its way up the mountainside, the road gained the central ridge and provided stunning views down both sides of the island, to the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

Tourism in Puerto Rico is fairly low key, especially in the south. The cruise ships call at San Juan, and if visitors go to a forest it seems to be El Junque in the east. We had this one all to ourselves. From the look of the car park, there might have been one other group around somewhere, but we never saw anyone. We hiked for three hours on rough roads and narrow tracks, finding ripe oranges to supplement lunch, seeing huge stands of bamboo and other trees, gaining amazing views over the island and, eventually, attaining the top of a hill where someone had gone to the trouble of building a stone tower with spiral steps and battlements at the top. Issie just wanted to play stranded princess and we were all delegated to be rescuing princes at one time or another.

As we entered the last mile of the hike, the rainforest lived up to it's name and drenched us, having forgotten to bring any raingear, unusually for us. Yet by the time we got back to the car the sun had reappeared and we were halfway to dry. We enjoyed our brief taste of this area, and would love to return there again.

The following day we visited Ponce, a major town on the south coast. With a long history and some elegant colonial architecture, Ponce is trying hard to present itself as a tourist destination and there is certainly plenty worth seeing. Yet the over-riding impression, as in many of the older sections of these towns, is one of somewhere long past its prime. Boarded up buildings are everywhere, rough edges of town are no long on the edges, they protrude, like a painful spine, into the places where the old centre has fallen away.

We took a tour on an optimistic venture - the road train. The kids thought this was great, we were the only passengers and I suspect our $8 wasn't enough to justify driving around for forty minutes, but off we went. We certainly saw the highlights, but they are interspersed by some pretty intriguing lowlights too. On one section of the tour, we pass the police and defence force headquarters, with impressive murals and flagpoles, then veer right up a ramp onto the main highway (we ride the hard shoulder at fifteen miles an hour whilst the traffic whips by our ears) and take the next exit, a half mile on, to pass broken down and boarded up concrete shells and the bridge over the river - now a canalised concrete drain reminiscent of the racetrack in the movie 'Grease'. But this strange exercise in impressing the visitors has a point, we pause at a fenced in park with a big tree in the centre, it is over a thousand years old, our driver proudly tells us. It is impressive, but the surroundings are not.

Don't get me wrong, I actually really liked Ponce in the way that one can really like a decrepit drunk of an actor or writer because the good points really do make up for the rest. One true redeeming feature was the fabulous Cafe Mayor - often just called Cafe Cafe, where we thank the Rough Guide for finding us lunch. Not only was lunch honest, straightforward and excellent local food, but the surroundings were lovely - a mix of bohemian indoor space and tropical garden patio, with just the right amount of dishevelledness to match the city outside. The real highlight is that the cafe is owned by a family who also own a coffee plantation up in the western mountains and they roast, grind and serve the coffee right there. It was fabulous.

I spent a good while chatting to the mother and two of her sons. She was very proud of them, the business and what they do, justifiably so. She showed us how they hand pick the coffee beans on a sieve like grid, we ran our fingers through the bag of rejects, any slightly browned beans, and she joked that those are the ones they sell to starbucks. One of her sons not only ran the cafe but was also involved in wind power, distributing software that modeled the power output possible from a given terrain. He'd spent time in Loughborough, England studying renewable power and we had a good chat about that too. They were very interested in our sailing adventure, and our future plans. It was fun to chat.

As was the case all along in our visit. The Puerto Ricans we met were friendly, charming, well educated and engaging. Helen and I were amazed to bump into a chap who spoke Dutch, having spent a year in Amsterdam as a teenager he still remembered enough of the language to exchange a few sentences with Helen. Many people spoke excellent English, and those that didn't were quick to accost an English speaking colleague or friend to help us with our rudimentary spanglish.

I certainly like to return to Puerto Rico one day, it feels like we saw a fraction of the country in our two weeks there. Photos when we next have wifi.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Rolling along

Ty Dewi is back in her favourite mode - rolling. The wind is behind us, we are making good time and rocking fairly gently from side to side as we go. It's fairly comfortable, although don't ask Gesa whether she agrees. Max is a lot better now, he and I have just spent a lovely half hour on deck (it's 4am) watching the stars, shooting stars and phosphorescence in the wake. The Southern Cross is visible at this time in the morning, low in the southern sky, so that's a rare treat for us to see as we are rarely awake at this ungodly hour.

The weather forecast continues to be good, this weather window we took will close on Wednesday afternoon with the arrival of a strong cold front bringing fairly strong winds from the north. We will, hopefully, be safely tucked up in South Caicos by then, where it is well sheltered from most directions. We are due to arrive at daybreak tomorrow morning. I'd considered doing the extra hundred miles straight to Mayaguna in the Bahamas but the front will have arrived by then so that's no longer an option. I think it would be nice to see the Caicos anyway, the snorkeling and water clarity is supposed to be outstanding.

So, all's well and just over twenty four hours to run.


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Monday, February 02, 2009

One day done

Well, the good news is that we have fine weather and fast progress towards the Turks and Caicos Islands. We've covered a healthy 150 miles in the first twenty four hours and it's sunny and warm outside.

Sadly, we have big waves, a large northerly swell is being sent down to us by a storm much further north, giving us a regullar and not entirely comfortable rocking over waves at least ten feet tall. Gesa and Max are suffering badly from their seasickness, dealing with it by spending much of the time asleep. Gesa spends three hours on watch, on deck, then takes to her bunk for my watch. I'm trying to make sure Issie and I get properly fed, and the other two looked after, and snatching sleep when Gesa takes her watch.

Hopefully, the good progress will see us in, probably, South Caicos by early Wednesday morning, where we can rest and recover before making the twenty four hour hop to Mayaguna in the Bahamas. We'll have to wait for a weather front to pass as well, which should be here on Wednesday and coincide nicely with our time in port.

All's pretty well, considering! N.

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On the move again

It's been a long time since we posted something on the blog, sorry, but we have been busy enjoying ourselves once again. Our time with Helen on board was fantastic, and we managed to explore some fun parts or Puerto Rico in our all too brief visit. I'll write a lot more about our past week but for now, just to say that we left Ponce this afternoon to begin our family jaunt to the Turks and Caicos.

Only 336 miles, hopefully three days at sea. The wind had arrived by the time we left and blew us rapidly out of the harbour and along the coast, building short sharp waves as it went. These had us rolling all over the place and somewhat upset the stomachs of some of our crew. After a few hours, a weak weather front passed over us and the wind switched, very abruptly, into the north where it blew gently for an hour then died to nothing, so now, at ten pm, we are motoring gently on our way. It'll be a tiring night, as I never sleep well first night out, nor does Gesa, I expect, so our time off watch won't be very restful. The kids will discover that their parents are not too interactive tomorrow as we catch up by napping on our daytime off watch.

Anyway, all's well, it's a beautiful calm and starry night and we're on our way towards the Turks and Caicos islands.


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