Rookies of the Sea

For long our plan of sailing exotic destinations has been put under salt for many reasons. Little by little we removed our impediments and finally set our course South.

We departed Brunswick on Monday 24th and made it only as far as New Smyrna Beach, FL, a mere 120 miles away. We transited the Ponce de Leon Inlet right at sunset and dropped anchor in a random shoal just off the ICW.

The reason for such a short hop was health. Both of us felt pretty sick, not only for the crazy motion of our small craft but also for something that we ingested pre departure. I spare you the recounts of symptoms and experiences of this illness, nothing pretty. Without some disappointment we had to make the call to pull over and anchor, to heal and re-gather strength.

We sail a primitive boat, with limited auxiliary power so everything we do has to be timed with favorable weather conditions. Weather is a Master we have to obey.

We had such favorable conditions at the beginning of this week in the form of 15-20 knots blowing from the West allowing us to move South along the Florida coast and reach a favorable hop spot to Bahamas. We could have made it not stop in three days, but we decided nothing good could come from keeping at sea in our sick condition.

Now that we blew this weather window we may have to wait quite a bit. We felt pretty bad about it, as rookies who can barely handle discomfort. It was a tough call, especially knowing what the weather had prepared for us and what is showing for the next days.

Even if our current status is not what our imagination envisioned we are indeed “on the road” in a place we have never intended to visit as often happened before. Our Master will decide how long we will have to stick around and what will be next for us.

Obey your Master.

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) – Part II: green eye in the sky

Click here for Part I

Third Leg: Ft. Myers, FL to Houston, TX

We saluted the coast of Florida with a nice sailing between Sanibel Island and Pine Island, dodging the plethora of mostly drunk powerboaters going up and down the bay. We decided to use Boca Grande to get out into the Gulf and when we finally approached the channel I was so glad to leave the inlet and the powerboat traffic of the weekend. Winds were 10-15 knots from the SSW, so we put the boat on a close reach, let the tiller in the hands of the Monitor and enjoyed sailing on the gentle swell.

waves1
Offshore sailing in the Gulf of Mexico

It was slow sailing, to be honest, as the Southern Cross 31 needs a bit of sporty conditions to move the 13000 lbs of displacement, but we were happy to make progress towards our destination while enjoying the perks of being at sea: a well equipped, fully provisioned boat, following our watch rotation and enjoying tasty meals cooked on the stove. The next day, Sunday the barometer started to fall to 1004mb and the wind backed to SE. I was worried about that reading, but I was still confident for our positive weather forecast and I went into my bunk for my rest time.

Southern Cross 31 leeward side
Southern Cross 31 leeward side

<<Fabio! Come out!>>. A green eye in the sky crowned by a circle of black clouds appeared in front of me as I cleared the companionway. I had just been summoned on deck from my bunk and I noticed it was getting pretty windy. It’s late afternoon, just an hour before my watch starts. The crew on watch was speechless because they just observed a pod of several dozens of dolphins jumping by and I am not quite sure if I they called me because all hands on deck were needed or just to share the sublime panorama of a violent storm brewing. The green color of the sky was so beautiful yet so menacing. I have never seen a sky like that one before.

Thunderstorm flashes made us understand how quickly we had to move and we prepared the boat for heavy weather. After the previous thunderstorms on the East coast of Florida we were well trained and we reduced the sail area very quickly. The storm’s edge slammed into the boat and for the next minutes the vessel was battered by blinding rain and blown nearly horizontally. We bit the bullet after this first hit but the evil sky showed no sign of mercy.

This system seemed not only more violent than the ones we encountered before but also the squalls were long lasting and so Roberto and I had to reschedule our watches to take turns on the tiller to catch some rest. With the minimum sail area possible (3 reefs in the mainsail and a reefed staysail) we managed to have enough momentum to keep the wind after the beam as we rode the big swell lifted by the storm. We kept working in the dark, removing the rolled up inflatable dinghy from the deck and storing it inside, in the fear that the storm would take it. The thick clouds neutralized the light of the moon and the night was pitch dark, only the flashes of lightining strikes showed the frightening sea conditions before leaving me dazzled.

I couldn’t decide wether I preferred to see the waves or to be surprised by a crest of water crashing on deck. The low pressure system showed no sign of dissipating, and beside a brief moment of calm while in “the eye” of the storm, the wind and the even bigger waves resumed their action. Again, I was lying in my bunk trying to have few minutes of rest when Roberto called me on deck. As I was donning my rain gear I could hear thunders and see lightning, the heralds of another stormy squall that hit us with incredible violence as I was climbing the ladder to the cockpit. The boat this time buried the toe rails and the starboard deck deep in the water. The water reached the cockpit coamings, and from up high the windward seats we could watch the green sea underneath as if we were on a rollercoaster approaching a dive loop. Even the little sail area was too much for the wind conditions. With no other option than take them down I started to crawl my way to the mast where without much elegance I let go of the mainsail halyard and the staysail too. I tied down the staysail the best I could while battered by painful raindrops and then I crawled back into the cockpit.

We were now running bare poles, occasionally blown over by a stronger gust but at least we got rid of some pressure from the mast and the rig. Like a cork the boat was going up and down the wave crests, responding slowly to the inputs of the tiller, but surely going the directions we wanted, with the wind behind the beam. Unfortunately it wasn’t finished for us.  A sail we thought it was stowed started to act wildly: the roller furler let go a little portion of the jib that started to flog and shake the forestay wildly. At first we were paralyzed by this occurrence, asking ourselves “and now, what?” We soon realized that we couldn’t afford any paralysis. In those conditions (still well above 40 knots) the flogging of the sail could break the forestay and put the whole rig in danger. Roberto made it to the foredeck and started to play with the spinnaker halyard to bridle the sail. This temporary fix worked for very little and soon more effective measures were required. Again Roberto engaged a wrestling match with the wind this time to pull the jib all the way down from the roller-furler. I don’t know how but I am very glad he succeeded. I was at the helm, trying to avoid any dangerous gybe running after the storm and I could only see Roberto’s headlamp shining from the bow.

Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib
Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib

Like the last of Hercules’ labors the dousing of the jib was the last hazard of that long night. As the dawn light spread across the clouds the wind remained of gale force slowly decreasing. Now it was time to admire the 20 feet high, sometimes higher waves that were towering around us, the spindrift flying around and the turbulence drawn by the gusts on the back of the waves, the spectacular turquoise water under the foaming tips of breaking waves. With no much energy left we surrendered to the finest spectacle offered by Nature. Without electronic instruments to measure wind speed we could only estimate their force referring to our past experience. I personally never been in such conditions before and I can say that I experienced the strongest wind and highest waves of my life. We agreed that more than 40 knots blew for the most part of the night, with 50 and stronger gusts during the near knockdown. The night time and the bad weather surely contributed to increase the sense of danger and perhaps affected our perception, but there is not doubt it was a hellish night of severe weather.

The sea state after the storm
The sea state after the storm
A breaking crest coming for us
A breaking crest coming for us

We tried to resume the regular schedule onboard, allowing the crew to rest after the long night, but we soon realized that something was wrong inside the boat. Somehow water found its way inside the cabin, soaking everything on the starboard side, from the navigation station (charts, log book, electronics) and on the rest of the cabin, where Roberto and I stored our luggage, soaking the mattresses and the fresh lining in the bunks. All our phones, stored in a drawer, were gone after a deadly bath in salt water.

Monitor Windvane back on duty
Monitor Windvane back on duty

We couldn’t believe it but all the starboard side of the boat was wet and so our belongings and our sleeping place. I’ve lost many phones before to salt water (mostly falling in the water while boarding dinghies) and although it is a bad feeling, you know it’s just a phone. What was very upsetting was the bedding and clothing. I was left with only one shirt and one pair of shorts, more or less soaked from the night before. We were still 500 miles from Houston, still with thunderstoms around us and on a boat that was not as comfortable as when we left. I was suddenly reminded how important is to have completely a watertight boat.

Click here to read Part III

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) – Part II: green eye in the sky

Click here for Part I

Third Leg: Ft. Myers, FL to Houston, TX

We saluted the coast of Florida with a nice sailing between Sanibel Island and Pine Island, dodging the plethora of mostly drunk powerboaters going up and down the bay. We decided to use Boca Grande to get out into the Gulf and when we finally approached the channel I was so glad to leave the inlet and the powerboat traffic of the weekend.

Winds were 10-15 knots from the SSW, so we put the boat on a close reach, let the tiller in the hands of the Monitor and enjoyed sailing on the gentle swell.

waves1
Offshore sailing in the Gulf of Mexico

It was slow sailing, to be honest, as the Southern Cross 31 needs a bit of sporty conditions to move the 13000 lbs of displacement, but we were happy to make progress towards our destination while enjoying the perks of being at sea: a well equipped, fully provisioned boat, following our watch rotation and enjoying tasty meals cooked on the stove.

The next day, Sunday the barometer started to fall to 1004mb and the wind backed to SE. I was worried about that reading, but I was still confident for our positive weather forecast and I went into my bunk for my rest time.

Southern Cross 31 leeward side
Southern Cross 31 leeward side

<<Fabio! Come out!>>. A green eye in the sky crowned by a circle of black clouds appeared in front of me as I cleared the companionway. I had just been summoned on deck from my bunk and I noticed it was getting pretty windy. It’s late afternoon, just an hour before my watch starts.

The crew on watch was speechless because they just observed a pod of several dozens of dolphins jumping by and I am not quite sure if I they called me because all hands on deck were needed or just to share the sublime panorama of a violent storm brewing. The green color of the sky was so beautiful yet so menacing. I have never seen a sky like that one before.

Thunderstorm flashes made us understand how quickly we had to move and we prepared the boat for heavy weather. After the previous thunderstorms on the East coast of Florida we were well trained and we reduced the sail area very quickly. The storm’s edge slammed into the boat and for the next minutes the vessel was battered by blinding rain and blown nearly horizontally. We bit the bullet after this first hit but the evil sky showed no sign of mercy.

This system seemed not only more violent than the ones we encountered before but also the squalls were long lasting and so Roberto and I had to reschedule our watches to take turns on the tiller to catch some rest. With the minimum sail area possible (3 reefs in the mainsail and a reefed staysail) we managed to have enough momentum to keep the wind after the beam as we rode the big swell lifted by the storm.

We kept working in the dark, removing the rolled up inflatable dinghy from the deck and storing it inside, in the fear that the storm would take it. The thick clouds neutralized the light of the moon and the night was pitch dark, only the flashes of lightining strikes showed the frightening sea conditions before leaving me dazzled.

I couldn’t decide wether I preferred to see the waves or to be surprised by a crest of water crashing on deck. The low pressure system showed no sign of dissipating, and beside a brief moment of calm while in “the eye” of the storm, the wind and the even bigger waves resumed their action. Again, I was lying in my bunk trying to have few minutes of rest when Roberto called me on deck. As I was donning my rain gear I could hear thunders and see lightning, the heralds of another stormy squall that hit us with incredible violence as I was climbing the ladder to the cockpit.

The boat this time buried the toe rails and the starboard deck deep in the water. The water reached the cockpit coamings, and from up high the windward seats we could watch the green sea underneath as if we were on a rollercoaster approaching a dive loop. Even the little sail area was too much for the wind conditions. With no other option than take them down I started to crawl my way to the mast where without much elegance I let go of the mainsail halyard and the staysail too. I tied down the staysail the best I could while battered by painful raindrops and then I crawled back into the cockpit.

We were now running bare poles, occasionally blown over by a stronger gust but at least we got rid of some pressure from the mast and the rig. Like a cork the boat was going up and down the wave crests, responding slowly to the inputs of the tiller, but surely going the directions we wanted, with the wind behind the beam. Unfortunately it wasn’t finished for us.

The Genoa started to act wildly: the roller furler let go a little portion of sail that started to flog and shake the forestay wildly. At first we were paralyzed by this occurrence, asking ourselves “and now, what?” We soon realized that we couldn’t afford any paralysis. In those conditions (still well above 40 knots) the flogging of the sail could break the forestay and put the whole rig in danger.

Roberto made it to the foredeck and started to play with the spinnaker halyard trying to bridle the sail. This temporary fix worked for very little and soon more effective measures were required. Again Roberto engaged a wrestling match with the wind this time to pull the jib all the way down from the roller-furler. I don’t know how but I am very glad he succeeded. I was at the helm, trying to avoid any dangerous gybe running after the storm and I could only see Roberto’s headlamp shining from the bow.

Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib
Roberto after the storm sleeping on the jib

Like the last of Hercules’ labors the dousing of the jib was the last hazard of that long night. As the dawn light spread across the clouds the wind remained of gale force slowly decreasing. Now it was time to admire the 20 feet high, sometimes higher waves that were towering around us, the spindrift flying around and the turbulence drawn by the gusts on the back of the waves, the spectacular turquoise water under the foaming tips of breaking waves.

With no much energy left we surrendered to the finest spectacle offered by Nature. Without electronic instruments to measure wind speed we could only estimate their force referring to our past experience. I personally never been in such conditions before and I can say that I experienced the strongest wind and highest waves of my life. We agreed that more than 40 knots blew for the most part of the night, with 50 and stronger gusts during the near knockdown. The night time and the bad weather surely contributed to increase the sense of danger and perhaps affected our perception, but there is not doubt it was a hellish night of severe weather.

The sea state after the storm
The sea state after the storm
A breaking crest coming for us
A breaking crest coming for us

We tried to resume the regular schedule onboard, allowing the crew to rest after the long night, but we soon realized that something was wrong inside the boat. Somehow water found its way inside the cabin, soaking everything on the starboard side, from the navigation station (charts, log book, electronics) and on the rest of the cabin, where Roberto and I stored our luggage, soaking the mattresses and the fresh lining in the bunks. All our phones, stored in a drawer, were gone after a deadly bath in salt water.

Monitor Windvane back on duty
Monitor Windvane back on duty

We couldn’t believe it but all the starboard side of the boat was wet and so our belongings and our sleeping place. I’ve lost many phones  to salt water before(mostly falling in the water while boarding dinghies) and although it is a bad feeling, you know it’s just a phone. What was very upsetting was the bedding and clothing. I was left with only one shirt and one pair of shorts, more or less soaked from the night before.

We were still 500 miles from Houston, still with thunderstoms around us and on a boat that was not as comfortable as when we left. I was suddenly reminded how important is to have completely a watertight boat.

Click here to read Part III

Sailboat delivery with a twist(er) – Part I

I like boat deliveries. It’s one of those sailing jobs where you are actually paid to sail. Sometimes when skippering private or charter boats I end up sitting somewhere doing maintenance and waiting for guests that undertake short trips, mostly day trips in protected waters. Nothing wrong with that but when it comes to sail a boat and squeeze miles out of her, deliveries are my favorite because you are on the clock and your customer satisfaction depends on how quickly you can move the boat from point A to point B. Even if it’s not a race, and the safety of crew and vessel are of the utmost importance you can’t simply take it easy, you have to keep going and sail as efficiently as possible to destination.

Southern Cross 31 before departure
Southern Cross 31 before departure

Deliveries are good learning opportunity as you have to sail different boats, try different designs, gear and equipment. When the owner of a Southern Cross 31 was looking for skipper and crew to move his recent purchase from Brunswick, GA to Houston, TX I immediately felt like I wanted to jump onboard. I found the route interesting as I never sailed the Gulf of Mexico (never been to Texas either) and I was curious to see inland Florida through the Okeechobee Water Way. On the other side, the reputation of the Southern Cross 31 as a very seaworthy boat was another attractive feature of this project.

Designed by Thomas Gillmer, the Southern Cross 31 is a stout, double ender cutter. Her full keel and heavy displacement of 13,600 lbs (for a 31 footer) suggest that she is not a bolt and that her windward ability may lack some efficacy. The cutter rig however allows for a generous amount of sail area and flexibility in terms of adjustments to various sailing conditions and wind force. The SC31 is also known to have a very comfortable motion in high seas, and being relatevely roomy and able to carry supply make a boat for sailors that intend to go long distances.

As other designs built with the same philosophy (which can be dated back to the pioneeristic work of Colin Archer) such as Westsails, Allied Seawind and some of Bob Perry’s designs, this type of boat is often considered as the ultimate bluewater boat, for the extreme sturdiness and quality build, the conservative sail plan and hull shape above and under the waterline.

While I am not a great fan of the design, this delivery was a great opportunity to test my opinions first hand. It’s incredible how dogmatic and opinionated you become as soon as you start sailing, and it’s good to remind myself how little I know about boats and how much to learn is out there. I have to admit that even if I developed preferences and opinions about designs and outfittings, I like almost any boat. It’s hard to explain but there is something interesting in all of them!

To help me in this trip I once again had the luck to have Roberto, that helped me before with leg one and leg two of Tranquility’s trip. He helped me very much in assessing the boat conditions, making all the adjustments we needed and offering solid manpower during the hardest parts of the trip. He is the kind of person I’d sail anywhere with, and I am glad I could share another trip with him.

First Leg: Brunswick to Ft.Pierce

The first part of the trip was harder than I expected. Not only did the crew have to learn how to properly set up a boat that’s been filled with the latest equipment and accessories but never really sailed hard, also the weather didn’t cooperate. Since the beginning we had our share of hard work trying to make South and East against a moderate southeasterly breeze.

Just after leaving St.Simons Sound we had to steer clear of the shoals out of Jekyll and Cumberland Island, and that took us almost 20 miles to the East, and very little to the South. That same evening Coast Guard issued a severe thunderstorm watch, with a whole set of damaging winds, torrential rain and lightning strikes. We listened to the advisory on the VHF radio and having lived few months on the coast of Georgia I experienced how most of the times those advisories resolved in a bluff, much ado about nothing, and we were hoping to get a bit of a favorable blow from the W to finally start to make progress towards our destination. We furled the jib away, took one reef in the main and left the staysail up with blind optimism.

This time USCG predictions were accurate and the first hit of the squall sent the boat on her side and as I was taking the tiller from the hands of the Monitor Windvane, Roberto had to run to the mast and reef the mainsail down to reef number three. Lightnings were all around the boat, very loud and creepy and in just few minutes we were completely soaked and shivering. After the first violent blow we managed to stabilize the boat and put her on course for maybe half an hour before the wind died again and turned from the South, leaving us wet and with little progress done.

To try to put miles behind us we spent the night motorsailing and the same happened the next day. Luckily we had a reliable inboard Yanmar diesel engine and we didn’t hesitate to crank it up when necessary to make progress to point B. Again, 24 hours later, off Cape Canaveral we had severe thunderstorms but this time we were well prepared and we anticipated the downburst and kept a good control of the boat during the squalls giving also the owner the opportunity to be at the tiller on a fresh broad reach in near gale conditions.

Light breeze the next days put our arrival time in Fort Pierce for late night and after tackling the inlet channel riding a strong incoming tide we made a sneaky approach in the dark and tied up in a marina with the plan to refuel in the early morning and continue to Mile 0 of the Okeechobee Water Way in Stuart, Florida.

Second Leg: Okeechobee Water Way (OWW)

Loaded up with fuel we began the long motoring days of the OWW through the St.Lucie River. The calm waters and little traffic allowed us to reorganize the boat and make the necessary repairs and upgrades.

Despite thousands of dollars spent in equipment and gear (including enough spare parts for a couple of circumnavigations), this boat had been sitting on a dock in Brunswick for several years and never sailed anywhere. A sad story heard before, the dream of long distance sailing vanished and the boat moved in different hands a couple of times. As often happens during deliveries this was more of a sea trial that pointed out the condition of the boat. Thinking back to our experience on Tranquility and other boats I am starting to understand how you need a passage of at least 500 miles to really put a boat through a minimum test. Few systems that worked perfectly when the boat was tied up to a dock started to fail, the brand new sails were not properly hoisted, the fridge failed and the AIS stopped transmitting.

As we were steaming around the inlets of the East Coast of Florida, we found and removed some seawater inside one of the lockers under a bunk that was not there before the trip. We used all our brain cells to try to unfold the mystery, with little success. The occurrence did not repeat so we put our mind at rest.

The crazy freshwater-macerator-holding tank system for the boat’s head failed almost immediately but Roberto was smart enough to MacGyver a fashionable repair that allowed us to use the head again, even better than before. Then the fridge stopped working, so I had to start pulling out feasty banquets of meats and perishable food to avoid the spoiling of our provisions. The spirits were high when we moored in Indiantown, FL at the local marina (obviously after working hours) where we also enjoyed the company of other cruisers and a load of fresh beddings from the laundry.

Port Mayaca Locks: Roberto waiting for divers in the lock
Port Mayaca Locks: Roberto waiting for divers in the lock

Not all evil comes to harm, and so do the failures onboard. During the trip the new owner had the chance to assess the boat and to have an idea about what he really needed onboard and what were haute couture sailing accessories. His desire was to undertake an offshore passage and learn more about sailing. Instead of waiting on an armchair for his boat to be delivered, he bravely decided to be part of the trip despite a recent injury that limited his mobility. Together we formed a cheerful trio that endured the difficulties and discomfort of long distance sailing.

Lake Okeechobee: it's like to be in the middle of the ocean
Lake Okeechobee: it’s like to be in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the trip on the OWW depended on locks schedules. Divers doing extraordinaire maintainance on Port Mayaca locks messed up our timing and progress, as we had to wait for two hours tied up to dolphins. Once they let us pass, the crossing of Lake Okeechobee was like an offshore passage, as in some portion of it no land was on sight. We chose the Route #1, directly across the lake, as it is the most direct way. We encountered hostile armies of mosquitos when we anchored out of Moore Haven after missing the last opening of the lock by 5 minutes. The clutch and the throttle failed right there during anchoring operations, so we had a nice repair project to deal with. Luckily it was no big deal so we enjoyed a quiet afternoon, spotting birds and alligators and eating more chicken.

Ft.Myers signed the return to civilization, and busy life. After a comprehensive provisioning at the local supermarket, refueling and deserved showers, we checked online weather forecast that stated no hazardous weather was on our trajectory for the first part of the trip. We also found a solid block of ice to keep our provisions fresh.. Everything conjured to make a prompt departure the very next morning.

Click here to read part II

On the way to San Blas #2

After Berlin underground crossing it’s time of U.S. in a trip that since its starting was very long and became even longer.
Landed in Miami on July 21st I stayed in Fabi’s house in Ft. Lauderdale for one night to be ready to leave for Panama on Friday night. Fabi is my boss’s friend, a friendly and nice woman who helped me a lot in Ft. Lauderdale.
After an entire day visiting around to wait for my late flight already checked in and already at the gate I received the bad news from the airline: plane had mechanical problems so is not leaving
General panic and fights always ready to start  between passengers and staff and between passengers! I used all the skills trained in italian post offices to conquer one of the first places so I got quickly my hotel room and my ticket for next day. One more day in Florida that passed by taking advantage of the comforts of my hotel room and going out for dinner with Fabi.
I have few and confused images of me in a car with Mitzy, the boat manager, and his brother driving through the incredible buildings of Panama City. Not more than three hours in the apartment and I’m
on a 4×4 that carries Kunas and their provisions from the city to the “Comarca de Kuna Yala”. The road is a tarmoil ribbon that flows trough the jungle and I ignore completely where I am only noticed I am stuffed in a vehicle that is collecting people all around. Finally I get to the “embarcadero” and jump on a lancha that takes me to the SV Andiamo, my new experience, in the unknown surrounding of San Blas Islands.