Ship's Log

September 10th, 2011 - Woburn, Grenada PART I*:

That’s right:  Grenada!  We did it.  It is officially possible for two adults, an infant, and an ailing mutt to take a 46-year-old sailboat about 400 miles without any of the aforementioned coming to harm, intentionally or unintentionally.  It is a trick of endurance, true; but the stamina required is mostly mental, and there are plenty of rewards along the way for those foolhardy enough to try it.

Our mooring ball forlornly watches us go.

When we unslipped the pennants of our mooring in St. Thomas on July 22nd, (a ludicrously late start; that's another story altogether) it had been 20 months since we’d last been cruising.  Twenty months!  Raising that mainsail felt gooooooood, even if we were only motorsailing the few miles to Great St. James.  This is an admittedly tiny hop to start such a long trip, but we felt it wise to ease into things.  We spent the night in Christmas Cove saying goodbye to the twinkling lights of St. Thomas, and talking about the unforgettable things that happened to us there.  That little island has been very good to us.  It was a relief to be getting away at last, and great to be doing it in our boat, but we also knew we’d be glad to come back.

SARABANDE (center) in Christmas Cove.

The following morning, we timed our departure to co-incide with James’ morning nap, an idea that’s served us well on many mornings since. 

87.1 feet of water under us, wind off our starboard bow, coffee half finished, baby a-snoozin'.

As he drifted off to dreamland in his carseat, we sailed across Pillsbury Sound, then motorsailed down through what’s known as “The Narrows”, a gorgeous alley of water between St. John and Tortola. The baby woke up, and we took turns holding and playing with him as we made a series of short tacks up towards Virgin Gorda (“The Fat Virgin” - not nice, Christopher Columbus!). We arrived in Virgin Gorda Sound mid-afternoon and anchored in a peaceful spot behind Prickly Pear Island, hoisting our “Q” flag on the starboard flag halyard. 

The Narrows.  St. John on the right, Tortola on the left.

Flying the quarantine flag, a simple solid yellow square, is a signal to officials and other mariners that you haven’t checked in with Customs yet, and you won’t leave your boat unless it’s to do so. Usually, if you’re only stopping to take a quick rest, you can put out your flag and leave the next day without messing with Customs at all, provided you stay onboard and don’t bother anyone.  This practice is known as “Q-flaggin’ it” in the cruising sailors’ vernacular.

Our Q-flag, signalling to the MFWIC that we're only passing through.

Big-boned but pretty Virgin Gorda, as seen from our spot behind Prickly Pear.

We wanted to be able to leave quickly without the hassle of checking in and out with British customs officials, so we hoisted our yellow flag and got down to the business of finding a good weather window for the 85-mile hop in front of us, known as the Anegada Passage.  Not a single person we know who has done this trip has enjoyed it.  Don Street, the authority on routes throughout the Caribbean, describes why in Volume II of Street’s Cruising Guide to the Eastern Caribbean, one of our favorite guides:

    “Once you leave the Virgins....there is little between you and Africa  The seas sweep across 3,000 miles of open ocean, and as they enter Anegada Passage, they are influenced by the tide ebbing and flowing into the Caribbean.  The islands on both sides of the passage disturb the natural flow of the waves, making an area that is always rough and uncomfortable.  When the trades really begin to pipe up, the passage is difficult for large boats and well-nigh impossible for smaller ones.”

Doesn't that sound lovely?  So James’ first overnight probably wasn’t going to be boring, anyway!  Tuning into our HAM weather nets, we learned that two tropical waves were coming our way, the first one strong, the second one weaker.   For the uninitiated, tropical waves are large areas of low pressure and storm cells.  Every summer they form off the coast of Africa and are carried westward by the trade winds towards the Caribbean.  On the long trip over, some of the waves languish and dissolve into nothing.  But other waves find the trip invigorating, and build up along the way into tropical depressions, tropical storms, or big, bad nasty hurricanes.   

The Coast Gaurd weather report said first wave would whip the seas up 8-12 feet, 4 seconds apart: yuck.  The executive parties of our crew unanimously decided that we’d sit the first wave out, and try to make a run for St. Martin before the second, weaker one came.  The seas probably would still be a little high when we left, but given our late start, we were going to have to sacrifice some comfort in the name of swift southerly progress to safer places. 

So we sat tight, tinkering on the boat, baking bread, and watching Sesame Street as the first wave passed crankily over our heads.  Quick blasts of wind made the snubber line of our anchor groan, and raindrops pounded our decks as we bided our time.  We were satisfied that staying put had been the right choice, even if it did set us back a few days.

The non-executive members of our crew sitting out the tropical wave.  Tannenbaum is the B Squad leader.

The wave continued on to become tropical storm Don and did some damage in Honduras.  But by the time it was there, the sun was peeking through in Virgin Gorda and we were motoring our way into open water, our course set for St. Martin.  The weather window between the two tropical waves was open, and our first overnight sail as a family was about to begin! 

Speaking of sacrificing comfort, seasickness medication was off limits for Alicia, since it would’ve made her milk unsafe for the baby.  Instead, we hoped for the best with a super strong ginger beer from St. John and those silly accupressure wrist bands.  Sadly, Don Street was right;  we had 18-22 knots only a few degrees off our nose and the waves were quite steep and choppy.  The perfect recipe for mal de mer!  By the time night fell, Alicia was immobilized by nausea in the far corner of the cockpit while Brian basically singlehanded the boat and the diaper changes. 

The baby, for the most part, was an angel.  An angel with an iron stomach!  Much to the incredible good fortune of everyone involved, he doesn’t appear to get the least bit seasick.  He did seem a little bewildered at first, but we tried our best to be cheerful and convey that, although our formerly placid home was now a bucking bronco, this was something to be expected and not a big deal.  Apparently he bought it! 

More napping underway (hatless momentarily for the camera).  
The pose looks precarious, but the heeling of the boat
 is actually keeping him wedged in Alicia's lap.

Between awful ginger-barfs, Alicia nursed and sang to James, and held him while he napped.  He snoozed and ate right on schedule, taking all the tossing and heeling in stride.   He was content for hours at a time sitting on a lap, listening to our renditions of “Rubber Ducky” and “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and watching the waves go by.  Yes, there were a few “oh, sweet Jesus, what have we done?” moments of screeching, of course.  Frustration always seems magnified at sea, and babies on the verge of a nap don’t always like to be constrained in life jackets.  But overall, he made us so proud and we can’t believe how well he accepted the situation.

We adults didn’t fare quite as well.  Passages of this length are tricky, since you’re not at sea long enough to settle into a good watch routine.  We fell into our standard, crappy, overnight-passage watch “system”, wherein both of us stay outside in the cockpit, and Person 1 stays awake looking for ships while Person 2 snuggles up with Louie and dozes.  When Person 1 can no longer keep his or her eyes open, Person 2 is roused and takes over the watch.  Usually by the end of it, we’re waking each other up every five minutes to switch off!  

Nighttime on a lurching boat powering through stiff, unfriendly seas drags on forever in a mindless blur.  The drone of the engine and the pounding of the hull makes the mind snag on useless, circuitous thoughts that go nowhere.  There’s nothing like staring out at the dark, bumpy sea for 12 hours while your brain endlessly loops the same two lines of “Electric Avenue”!  By sunrise we were not only exhausted, but we were soaked with salt spray, windburned, and singing “Electric Avenue” to the baby, who woke up right at 6 as usual, all bright eyed and ready to play.  At least one of us had slept well.

But we can’t really complain.  Nothing serious went wrong, we made decent time (80 nautical miles in 20 hours), and we did get to see some old friends!  Schools of flying fish skimming across the waves in choreographed bursts, the rude bit of wave that pops over the coaming to nail you precisely in the kisser, soaking exactly nothing else, and the universe of stars curving over our heads, fiercely bright and vast  without the intrusion of man-made lights- had it really been 20 months since we’d last seen these?  Overnight, we shed our stationery, mooring-bound selves and slipped back into our roles as cruising sailors.  It was nice to be back.

St. Martin here we come!  It's mid-morning and we're almost there.

As the sky turned grey and the sun rose, we could see the intriguing outline of St. Martin on the horizon, and much closer, a pod of small, dark dolphins playing off our port bow.  Alicia finally started to perk up as we made our way into the lee of the island, where the seas were much smoother.  We powered up to Simson Bay and gratefully dropped anchor, breathing in the special moment of quiet that can only come from shutting down a deisel engine that’s been furiously rattling away for hours upon hours.

A tired but upbeat Louis Quincy smelling what St. Martin has to offer.

After three highly neccessary showers and a family nap, we launched the dinghy and checked in with customs, where Mr. Jimmy Jam received the first stamp in his passport (which is one of the cutest obects in the universe).  Here’s a free hot tip:  if you want to make a good impression on Customs officials, bring a flirty, freshly-washed little baby along with you!  By the time all our paperwork was filled out, the two agents had oohed and ahhed over James’ dimples and whipped out pictures of their own babies.  By far the most pleasant customs visit we’ve ever had!

Doesn't that Lagoon look irresistable?

Back on SARABANDE, again there was a meeting amoungst the executive branch, and we decided to pay the extra fee to move the boat into the fabulously tranquil Simson Bay Lagoon.  We felt we’d earned ourselves a night of total calm, plus there’s a tiny drawbridge that would be raised in order to admit us, and we happen to get a kick out of things like that.  As we lined the boat up and waited for the bridgekeeper's signal, one of the Customs ladies stepped out to watch, and waved as we went by.  James, up on the bow with his mama and Louie, waved back.

St. Martin is curious in that it is a small place, only 7 miles long, but half of it is owned by France, and the other is owned by the Netherlands.  Thus, one often sees the place referred to as “St. Martin/Sint Maarten”.  The dividing line between the two sides runs through the Lagoon, and is thoroughly marked by about a million little bouys.  Anchored on the Dutch side, we opened all our hatches and marveled at the almost total lack of motion.  Louie in particular seemed relieved to finally be able to stretch out and get comfy on his bunk; the passage was a little hard on his bum leg.  After a quick, simple dinner out, with a big medicinal doggy bag brought home, the whole family was soon happily passed out.

The next morning the weaker tropical wave was passing over our heads, and between rainstorms we made a quick provisions run.  Our long wait for weather in Virgin Gorda had depleted all the fresh food we’d brought from St. Thomas, and we were dying to eat something green and leafy!   The nearest grocery was a sort of posh, gourmet place full of half-spent produce flown in from Chile, but we were able to find some sugar bananas, huge, beautiful mangoes, and a strange-looking spinach, all grown by St. Martin’s rastas, and all delicious.  Initially, we’d wanted to use the day for a little more sightseeing and a foray over to the French side, but James was being a madman and the rain kept on coming.  We called it a day and went back home.

The next morning dawned grey and yucky-looking, and the SSB reception for our precious weather reports was poor, probably due to our proximity to the airport.  Still, since our next hop to St. Bart’s was only about 17 miles away, with great effort we overcame the powerful urge to laze around and instead topped up our fuel, checked out with Customs, and said goodbye to the tranquility of the lagoon. 

After we got to St. Martin, the islands were spitting distance apart.  

The afternoon was still greyer, and we spent it dodging a series of squalls (with moderate, but certainly not total, success).  When we arrived soggily in adorable Gustavia harbor, we found the anchorage to be crowded and severely, even bizarrely, rolly. 

The cute inner harbor of Gustavia.  Much more protected and calm in here, though of course anchoring is not allowed.  Along the
hillside drives, tiny Pugeouts with drivers on the right hand side of the car speed by, and all of a sudden, you feel like you're in Europe.

The squalls we fought all afternoon had heaped up the seas, and the gunnel-to-gunnel rolling was so severe that we couldn't even be mad about it!  It was amazing.  Standing in the deckhouse was like balancing on a playground seesaw, one foot rose as your other one dipped.  We could only laugh at the absurdity of it.  James caught our goofy mood and chuckled as his toys toppled and rolled around on the cabin floor all by themselves.  Louie took advantage of all the chaos to creep up and snatch James’ dinner right off his plate.  He got off with a wrist-slap though, since we felt he’d been putting up with an awful lot already. 

The sun sets on one of our most ridiculous nights ever at anchor.

According to a couple of forecasts, another nasty tropical wave was coming our way, so we needed to get as far south as possible before it was time to hole up somewhere.  Looking though our guides and charts, we nominated Deshaies (“day-HEY”) in Guadeloupe as the “rest stop” where we could sit out the nasty weather.   The next few days and islands passed by in a surreal blur as we pressed onward, motorsailing hard on the southeasterly wind all day, anchoring with our Q-flag up in the evenings, and moving on early the next day after listening to the morning weather.  Onward!  Andale!  Mush! 

An open anchorage in the lee of pretty Nevis.

We sped past St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat.  Each was more beautiful than the next, but we could only wistfully stare at their shorelines as we enjoyed the smooth seas of their leeward sides.  There is nothing like the sight of one of these towering islands from the deck of a small boat at sea, the angry Atlantic waves smashing dramatically on the rocks of the windward side, the towering green peaks gathering their halo of clouds.  Pictures don’t do them justice. 

The fishing fleet of Little Bay in for the evening in Montserrat, complete with rainbow.  That's Redonda rock on the background.

We passed by an active volcano smoldering away on the southwest corner of Montserrat.  Our guidebook warned that if it was really heating up, the wind would carry volcanic ash to our boat, but luck was on our side.  We only got some thin smoke and a strong sulphery stink.  Soufriere Hills volcano devastatingly erupted in 1995, burying the town of Plymouth in ash, lava and boiling mud, forcing 2/3rds of Montserrat's residents to abandon their homes and flee the island.  It's been erupting on and off since, though on a much smaller scale.  The ruined town of Plymouth sits under more than 40 feet of volcanic mud, and shoaling occurs for more than 1/2 mile offshore.  Even though every part of the world has its own particular niche of natural disaster to contend with, living on a small island with an active volcano has got to be pretty challenging. 

Soufriere Hills with clouds on top and smoke billowing out of the dome (the wind's blowing it left to right here).

Now we've hooked around the island so the smoke is blowing on us. This is the foot of the volcano.  You can see the latest dark layer of ash and muddy lava covering most of the land, and the few remaining structures of Plymouth near the shore

AMC sleeps while the baby sleeps, volcano or no volcano.


Even if we couldn't leave the boat, the scenery was unbeatable.

The weather for this portion of our trip was never great; all the recent tropical wave activity meant the seas between islands were set on perma-chop, and straggler squalls occasionally sped out of the eastern horizon to dump rain on us.  As the days wore on, the storm clouds increased in frequency and size until finally, as Guadeloupe slid into view, the scenery from the cockpit looked as though some Hollywood special effects house had designed it!  To starboard, the sun shone benignly and the sky was a perfect Carolina blue. To port, a crowd of ugly, khaki colored storm clouds had stacked up to form a solid mass that blotted out the light and turned the sea a dull grey.  Up ahead, more swarms of huge, low cumulonimbus clouds crowded up around the island, and one towering, incredible plume rose up over the center of the group, so tall it seemed to take over the whole sky.  Seen in a theater, it would have been fantastic, but viewing it in person made us quite fidgety!

As we sailed on, the plume rose ever taller, poised like an angry snake, hundreds of stories high, and we sensed that, if there was ever a time to pull out all the stops to get to our safe anchorage, now wasn’t so bad an option.  We gunned the engine to punch through the last few miles, into and under the big mess and hurried into snug little Deshaies.  The tall hills surrounding the little cove blocked the building wind, we dropped the anchor into the calm water.  The big, nasty snake plume plunged off to the west, by now sporting a couple of nasty waterspouts, and we watched it go by with binoculars from our smooth, serene little bay.  The smugness one feels in a protected anchorage when foul weather’s brewing is exactly the same feeling one gets peeking out the window of a cozy home, nibbling on a warm cookie while a blizzard blows and rages outside.  It’s not often that man wins a battle against nature, but when we do, we sure are pleased with ourselves!

Even in drizzly weather, Deshaies will charm your pants off.

Therefore, how satisfying it was to have a tropical wave to blame when we went ashore in our raincoats the next morning, stumbling in to linger over dark, steamy coffee, fresh-squeezed fruit juice and pain au chocolate!  Guadeloupe belongs to France.  It’s not merely a territory of France, stuck in some sort of weird colonial-political limbo; Guadaloupe is France, on equal footing with the other 26 regions that make up their republic.  The islanders are full French citizens, and the currency is the euro.

The sun peeks out for a while.  This is someone's backyard garden, and all the plants
 look absolutely thrilled to be living there.  That's a breadfruit tree in the back, flanked by papaya trees.

Now, the French are known for their nearly fanatical obsession with good food.  Take their bread, for instance, that famous French bread.  According to the law in France, in order to be called “French" bread, a loaf must only contain water, yeast, salt and flour grown and milled in France.  So, never mind that the wheat has to be shipped across an ocean, even though there are foriegn sources much nearer by; there are French citizens in the tropics, and they need proper French bread!  Off go the bags of flour across the Atlantic.  And that's not the only thing shipped to Guadeloupe from Froggyland.  The grocery stores are full of every day French basics that we Americans pay top dollar for in New York City:  wonderful cheeses, pates, butter, aged dry sausage, and the wine.  Of course the wine! 

Combine France's high culinary standards with the natural blessings bestowed on Guadeloupe - the dark, mineral-rich volcanic soil and the high mountains that attract plenty of pure, pollution-free rain - and you essentially find yourself in a food lover's paradise.  Things grown in Guadeloupe taste incredible!  Who would’ve thought one could rave about the "terrior" of a cucumber, or that a banana could have nuances of cinnamon and clove?  We on SARABANDE have been known to be a little food-obsessed ourselves, and the beautiful produce made one of us dance for joy.  

Our heads were spinning as we loaded the dinghy full of baguettes, cheese, sausages, sweet little pineapples, tomatoes, and the aforementioned cukes and bananas and gleefully sped back to our galley. 

SARABANDE adding ambiance to an outdoor cafe.  It's a good thing the diners couldn't smell our problem from here.
In between gorges, we tackled the daunting task of tidying up the boat.  After all our traveling through wet weather and rough conditions, SARABANDE wasn’t quite in top form.  She badly needed a good airing out and a thorough pass with the vacuum cleaner and mop.  Too, she was low on fuel and water.  But the really dire situation was the diapers.  James was on his last few clean pairs, and the heap of dirties looked almost alive, and smelled dead.  These had been rained on and splashed with salt spray since Virgin Gorda, and the stench was rapidly getting out of hand.  Clearly, it was laundry day. 

Lou supervises the laundry process.

It is here that we will introduce you to Washie, a godsend who’s been a valuable member of our crew since the Dominican Republic.  As the tropical wave became a tropical storm and passed to our south, Washie put in several hours of quality service, in tandem with our watermaker.  Once the washing was done, intermittent rain dampered our usual drying-on-the-lifelines routine, so we improvised.  Diapers were hung on every available crook and curtain, and Brian increased our drying capacity by tying several string clotheslines across the deckhouse, using the handholds.  Diapers, diapers everywhere, and the humidity made them take forever to finally dry, but it worked!  We celebrated by eating yet another baguette slathered with brie.

The source of all those dirty diapers.

Dirtying more diapers even as this photo was taken.  Diaper Wonderland and Brian's
 impromtu clotheslines visible overhead.

After two full days in Dehaies we were well rested with a freshly scrubbed boat stocked with clean dipes and good food. Time to get out there once again.  Brian dashed into town to purchase some fuel and came back with two more baguettes, warm, chewy and glorious. 

“I can’t believe you bought two more loaves!  We’ve got to get out of here before we split our pants,” lamented Alicia.  “Honestly, I think we should live here”, Brian said, his cheeks already packed full of bread, chipmunk-like.  After one last snack, with much sadness, we mashed the starter button with our big fat fingers and set about hauling up the anchor. 

Southward ho!

Here's a little something new:  we've added some videos to our long-stagnant YouTube channel.   Hopefully these links will work - being away from the States for so long has turned us into old people when it comes to technology.

Here we are sailing through Pillsbury Sound.
Here's Alicia, drug-free and overestimating those ginger beers as we leave Virgin Gorda for St. Martin.
And here's what things out there looked like at dawn, when we were almost there.
Here, for your entertainment, is a baby sailing to St. Barts.
And here, for the grandmothers, is the same baby sitting around being cute.

Also, we finally got on the ball and updated our google map.

PART II coming soon.  In the meantime, happy belated birthday to Alicia's lovely and talented Aunt Katie (9/1), and upcoming birthday cheer to our good friend Kevin Ginty (9/16), who's a gentleman and a scholar, to Brian's wonderful Grandma (9/18) and our hilarious and quotable nephew Pete (9/23), who's about to be two whole years old!

Alicia & Brian

*The purpose of this site is to not only keep our friends and families up to speed on our doings, but also for our own use as a keepsake to enjoy later, after we’ve (possibly) returned to a “normal” life on land (whatever that may mean).  For the latter reason especially, we went into a lot of detail so we’ll remember as much as we can.  For this reason, the account of the trip will be broken into three chunks.  Please indulge us; it’s been a long time since we’ve gone sailing like this!


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