Thursday, July 05, 2007

Rum Cay to San Salvador Island, Bahamas

32.2 nm
Wind: SE 15-20 knots, gusting higher
Seas: 4-6 feet, higher against tidal current
Latitude: 24°00.61’N
Longitude: 074°32.19’W
Maximum speed: 6.8 knots (under sail)
Average speed: 4.0 knots

A couple of weeks ago I thought Bob Dylan was singing to me when he sang about making it through--today he has a different song, from Forever Young: “May you always be courageous, stand upright and be strong.” Today required vast quantities of courage, the courage that we haven’t yet required of ourselves in taking on the trade winds. I’ve been looking at this trip still as a lark, a vacation, something we’re doing to amuse ourselves, more or less. But today we came face to face with the barest edge of the trade winds and seas, and I finally see what all the fuss is about.

I had been listening to the weather all along, every morning at 5:30 religiously, and I thought our window was going to hold through Saturday. Even this morning, the forecast was for 10-15 knots, 3-5 foot seas, a perfectly manageable forecast and well within the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves. Still, though, last night as I slept I was nervous. The wind felt and sounded stronger than that. We have no way to know, without any kind of windmeter.

Even this morning after the forecast I thought the wind sounded strong, and I said something to Karl, but neither of us were willing to be the one to naysay our planned move. So we raised the full main and headed out through the coral-strewn entrance. I thought the wind was maybe in my imagination, or maybe because of our relatively unprotected harbor. When we rounded the corner of the point, though, the full force of the wind, as well as the five-foot seas over the outgoing current hit us in the face. We reefed the main, and then motored feebly into it for what felt like an eternity.

In retrospect, we should have just trusted our sails and tacked out, south, and then tacked back around to the north when we had cleared the shoals, but I was determined to not give up northing. Nor did I realize that we were going barely a knot. I had set my mind on a lovely beam reach, northeast to San Salvador, and I didn’t know what to do with the wind and the seas. The engine started hiccuping, the way it does in rough seas, and I realized that if it died (which it did) it would be just us and our sails against the ocean. By the time it died, we had cleared enough of the reef to be able to turn eighty degrees off the wind, though we were still laid over on our ear.

As always, the Master didn’t work in the big seas, so we had to hand-steer. I did most of the steering, because Karl got seasick, worse than I’ve seen him before. He wasn’t that bad--he was still managing the sails, but it was clear to both of us that he needed to sleep. So I stayed at the tiller, blistering in the sun, and clutching to the tiller as each and every wave slapped against our beam and tried to push us over. We were sailing at seven knots with a reefed main and a mostly furled jib. Karl eventually took a shift, the last hour, and I huddled in the cabin, protecting my purpled skin from the sun. We anchored with relative ease, against the island Columbus first landed on, and with a big sigh of relief.

It was not fun. The whole time I maintained an attitude of optimistic competence, because I knew I needed to. We could manage it. We had to. It’s just us in a little boat on a big sea. We’re now open to the full force of the Atlantic. There’s nothing between us and it except the little island we’re huddled behind. It’s a different feeling now than when we were doing short hops down the coast. Sure, we got into crazy situations then, too, but there were always harbors we could duck into in an emergency, a coast guard we could call. Now it’s just us and the big wide ocean, and it’s our job to get ourselves from one little island to the next.

I definitely see the wisdom of our guidebook, of planning each step two steps in advance, as if we’re playing a game of chess with the ceaseless east wind. I’ll do that even more carefully now, though it’s frustrating to see what a forecast of fifteen knots of wind looks like. What would we do in twenty? Twenty-five? There are forecast of those all the time. In the Eastern Caribbean, where we’re heading, I rarely hear a forecast for less than 25. What will we do?

We’ll make it through, I’m sure. Eventually, somehow. But it’s sobering. Today’s sunset at peaceful anchor, with the wind still howling around the boat, made me appreciate our guide’s insistence on short hops. I don’t know what we would have done if we had had to face that for two days straight. Thirty miles was more than enough. And our next hop is an overnight, seventy miles to Samana Cay. I hope we can make it.

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