We left Turks and Caicos just before midnight on March 5 and arrived in Puerto Real, Puerto Rico about 5:00 p.m. on March 7. Forty-one hours start to finish, give or take a few minutes. It was mostly uneventful, but it was our longest non-stop run by far, it was only our second overnight ever, it was the first time a single trip took parts of two different nights, it was the first time we took turns driving and sleeping, it put us the farthest away from land we’ve been so far (only 38 nautical miles, but at our speed, that’s about 5 hours from land)… and I thought that you, Loyal Reader, would want to hear about it.
First, the big picture. We were in Turks and Caicos for four months, almost all of it in Providenciales (“Provo”). When it looked like we finally had a decent weather window to leave TCI, we took a couple of days cruising with our new friends Beth and Pat on their Nordhavn 60 “Olaf”, and repositioned Smartini to Big Sand Cay, the farthest Southeast island in TCI. We had hoped to be able to go from Provo to San Juan, Puerto Rico, but that was going to take 56 hours, and in five weeks of waiting and watching, no such window appeared. So we decided we would go from TCI to Luperon, in the Dominican Republic, because we could get there from Big Sand Cay in about 13 hours, and a one-day window was coming up. We didn’t really want to go to Luperon, because that left us still a long way from Puerto Rico, and going East along the North coast of the Dominican Republic isn’t easy. There aren’t many good places to tuck in out of the weather, and you can’t count on having comfortable cruising conditions more than maybe half the days, and even on those days, your best bet is to travel between midnight and eight or nine a.m. But we had to get moving, so that’s what we were going to do.
And then, as we were approaching the anchorage on the West side of Big Sand Cay to prepare for an early morning departure on Wednesday, we overheard two boats talking to each other on the VHF radio. Hayden on “Island Spirit” was talking to another boat about their plans to leave Big Sand that very night at midnight, and make a straight shot for Puerto Real on the Southwest coast of Puerto Rico. One of the boating weather gurus, Chris Parker, had sent them a message saying that it looked like it would be a good window for them. Island Spirit is a sailboat, and they plan to make about 5.5 knots, whereas we plan on making 7 knots. So if that window was good enough for them, it was more than good enough for us!
How did we miss that? Because we were so focused on the Provo -> San Juan route, we simply weren’t looking at Puerto Real and the South coast of Puerto Rico as an option. Lesson learned: know ALL your options, and keep watching all of them. At any rate, we used our satellite phone to download a current set of weather data (there is no cell service at Big Sand), confirmed the weather along the route, and figured we could do it in 43 hours at 7 knots, and 40 hours if we could average 7.5 knots. So we had a last dinner with Beth and Pat, slept for about 3 hours, got up, hauled anchor, and off we went! Island Spirit, friends of theirs on another sailboat, “Kindred Spirit”, and a third sailboat – the one that Hayden was talking to when we were eavesdropping – took off minutes behind us.
Forty one hours straight. Think about that a minute. Midnight Tuesday, then six hours later, the first milestone – sunrise! Then ALL DAY LONG on Wednesday until the next big milestone – sunset. Then ALL NIGHT LONG, and the Thursday morning sunrise seemed really significant. But we still had ten more hours to go before we’d reach Puerto Real. It was – for us, at least – a LOOOOOOOOOONG TRIP! The biggest issue, with only two of us (May the Cat is no help at all!), is dividing up the boat driving. I drove from midnight Tuesday until 4:00 a.m., then Fran took over. But as tired as I was, I couldn’t get into a deep sleep. By the time I did get up, it was light, and that’s way easier. We took turns driving and sleeping throughout the day, but not on any particular schedule. But we knew we needed a schedule for the coming overnight, and we decided on a common one – two hours on, two hours off. It worked, and we both were able to sleep really well in our two hours of bunk time, but you never get really, thoroughly rested. When the sun came up on Thursday, we were both very happy. We continued to swap driving and snoozing times, but like the day before, it wasn’t a set schedule. Daytime is SO much easier!
I can’t even imagine weeks-long passages. An acquaintance of ours is currently on a three week leg (of an around-the-world trip) between the Galapagos Islands and the Marquesas. Three weeks! Granted, the crew of that boat is a little bigger (four or five), but still – THREE WEEKS! We know of another couple who has been all the way around the world on their trawler, and one of their legs was 28 straight days. No way, no how, fugeddaboudit!
The hardest part about a night watch is the boredom. There is almost nothing to do. Because the wind was blowing in our face, we had the front plastic wind screen down, and it was covered in salt spray, so impossible to see through in the dark. It was a new moon, so it was so black outside, we couldn’t have seen anything even with the wind screen up. All you have to look at is the 7″ moving map (not much changing at 7 knots), the infrared camera display (different shades of gray depicting the water in front of the boat), the radar (nothing going on there, thankfully), and the data page, which, ever so slowly, counts down the miles and hours to the next waypoint and the final destination. We have a CD player, so once every 45 minutes or so, you get to change the CD (yay! Something to do!), or you can queue up an audio book. And that’s it. The autopilot is driving, so there is absolutly no input that the boat needs or wants. There are no other boats to look at or talk to. It’s mind-numbingly boring.
So you’d think that a little excitement would be welcome, right? WRONG! When it’s the middle of a pitch black night, and you are on a single-engine boat that’s hours from the nearest land, the LAST thing you want is excitement. We had two exciting moments, however.
The first was just about dawn on the first morning. Fran was driving, and I was trying to sleep. (Sleeping takes place in our bedroom, not up on the flybridge where the driving is happening.) Suddenly, I hear the not at all welcome sound of our main engine going from its happy droning along at 1,450 RPM to idle, in one second. OMG! What happened? Did the engine die? No – it’s still running. Run up to the flybridge, and “Fran! Did you do that?!?!” “Yes – I almost hit a whale!” A humpback whale had surfaced right in front of the boat – Fran says no more than two boat lengths – blown a big spout, apparently realized his predicament, and went head-down, tail-up below the black surface of the ocean, all in about three seconds. By that time, he’s only a few seconds from getting hit, so Fran pulled the throttle all the way back to idle. And scared the S**T out of me!
The other bit of excitement happened about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, the second night. We were cruising along the East coast of the Dominican Republic, staying fairly close to land to take advantage of the calmer waters that are often just offshore of a big island at night. I was driving, Fran was sleeping. I intended to keep us in about 200 feet or deeper water, because fishermen don’t usually put their fish traps that deep. No fish traps means no fish trap lines and buoys to catch with Smartini’s stabilizers or propeller. But my planning was less than optimal, as our course took us through an area where the depth came up to under 100 feet. I was listening to a CD, and it’s one I’m not familiar with, when I heard this percussion rythm that didn’t quite match the beat of the music. Just as I was reaching to turn the volume down to see if the new sound was in the song or not, Fran burst through the hatch and says “There’s a horrible sound coming from the engine room!” Crap! Crap! CRAP! My mind was racing, thinking of all the things that could go wrong with an engine to make that thunk-thunk-thunk sound that I could now clearly hear. I raced to the engine room door, opened it and stuck my head inside – and the noise went away! Instantly, I knew it wasn’t a problem with the engine, and that we had hooked a fish trap.
We grabbed our handheld spotlight and shined it over the starboard side in the direction of the sound, and there it was. A hard plastic float about the size of a cantaloupe was rap-rap-rapping on the steel hull in time with the wake running down the side of the boat. I pulled the engine to idle, put it in neutral, and grabbed the boat hook. With Fran holding the spotlight, I snagged the float and got it in my hands. I walked forward with it while keeping pressure on the line, until I was well forward of the stabilizer fin, and then gently pulled on the rope until, a minute later, another float and about 30 feet of line came free. The whole episode didn’t take five minutes, and ended with no ill effects other than a fish trap being lost on the bottom of the ocean (for which I do feel bad!).
The only other things even approaching excitement were the three times we spotted whales in front of us, but those times were all during the second day, and two of them were when whales surfaced and spouted a few hundred yards in front of Smartini. Cool to see, but not really exciting. The third one happened when we were about an hour away from our destination. I was on the phone with Jose, the awesome manager of Marina Pescaderia in Puerto Real, trying to arrange for our arrival. Three whales appeard 100 yards in front of the boat and stayed at the surface as we cruised by them, no more than 20 feet off our port side. Unfortunately, I saw them only after Smartini had passed them, because Fran didn’t want to interrupt my phone call to tell me that THERE ARE THREE WHALES RIGHT BESIDE THE BOAT!!!!! Thanks, Fran, for being so polite.
In previous posts, I’ve mentioned May the Cat, and how she is usually quite comfortable on the boat, even when we’re moving. I guess she is our barometer of comfort – if she’s not happy, it means the boat’s bouncing pretty good. For a good bit of this trip, she was not happy. She tried to find a place where the movement isn’t so bad, but she just couldn’t. Finally, when I came down for one of my sleep shifts, I picked her up and took her to bed with me. She snuggled in between my torso and a pillow, and was able to ease the movement enough that she finally zonked out. And there she stayed for at least 12 hours, through several shift changes. As long as she could be up against one of us, she was OK. And the last several hours of the trip were quite calm, so by the time we reached Puerto Real, she was pretty much back to her normal self. By the next morning, she acted as though that 41 hour passage had never occurred.
But it had occurred, and we survivied it. Does that mean we’re eager for the next one, or maybe even a longer one? Nope. In fact, before we finished that one, we looked at the ENTIRE rest of our planned route for The Big Adventure, and determined that we shouldn’t have any single leg longer than about 24 hours, and only a few of those. All the rest should be doable in a day’s light, or maybe a few hours more. If it works out that way, I can tell you that there are three souls who will be very happy about it.