Sailing to Panama: the route

When you find yourself in the situation of having a fine sailing vessel, equipped and provisioned for long voyages and when you finally severed the ties that bind you to a specific geographical location, you could incur in the trouble of having to decide where to go.

It may sounds a silly “first world problem” but the world is big and there are so many beautiful places to visit. If you have the goal of circumnavigating the planet then at least you know that you will leave from point A to return to point A. The route then becomes a matter of preference in regard of type of sailing (warm vs. cold), budget and geopolitical situation en route.

We never had a circumnavigation as our main goal, so we faced a very open ended problem. Our only requirements were to stay out of the Hurricane tracks and, possibly, not spend too much money.

After long discussions, numerous changes and endless planning Kate and I agreed to point Tranquility towards Panama.

The reasons in favor of the central American country are the following:

  • This is were we first met six years ago and we haven’t been back since. We still have friends there that we regularly speak to and we want to hug them.
  • It is outside of hurricanes and tropical storms range.
  • Panama is a beautiful and very biodiverse country, touched by two oceans, with hills and mountains covered by rain forest, and surrounded by numerous tropical islands. All packed in a small, accessible territory.
  • Fruit and vegetables taste good, fish and seafood is abundant and not affected by ciguatera.
  • We have an option to continue towards the Pacific if we decide to, or alternatively, to explore the Caribbean side of Central America

THE WINDWARD PASSAGE ROUTE

Once picked our destination, we had to figure out which way to go. If you know something about sailing you understand that the obstacles involved are not only the visible ones. Weather patterns have a paramount influence over the possible routes, and they have to be taken into account to foresee which type of trip to expect.

The first important call to make was wether passing Cuba to the east or the west. Panama lies due south of Florida and the long and tall island of Cuba sits right in the way.  Predominant winds and currents flow E to W fueled by the Atlantic trade winds, making it inevitable to beat upwind: you can either do it earlier, through the Bahamas all the way to the Windward passage, or later, once past the western tip of Cuba; you can face the fierce but steady Atlantic Ocean or try your chances with the capricious Caribbean Sea.

We opted for the Windward Passage route even if the one along the south of Cuba had its attractive and advantages. We thought the Bahamas way could be faster, and considering that it was already the end of April and we were approaching the beginning of Hurricane season time was a factor to take into account.

Over time, we had learned that we prefer to make longer stops and visit places in a relaxed way in between sailing passages, rather than keep moving in small sections. An offshore trip is always proving!

Finally with a destination in mind we started to feel excited about this new chapter. The only thing left was to wrap up the long process that we started one year earlier and sail to the Bahamas.

Keep the paint flow

The itch of going back to the ocean has often disturbed my ability to see all the gifts the Golden Isles provided us with, from wonderful friends to work opportunities, all surrounded by beautiful wilderness and by the warmth of a great sailing community.

Two coats of epoxy primer wrap Tranquility’s deck as I walk the dock in the cold morning, the first sunbeams reflects on the pure white forming little drops of dew on the surface. The hard work is slowing paying off and the grey tormented deck is already a memory. One more coat will hide any further mark of underlayer with an immaculate cloak, then the sexy two-part polyhurethane paint will have the perfect stage to play its glossy role.

Painting and sanding punctuate our days. The weather rules our schedule, as we are doing everything in open air, vulnerable to atmospheric change. We look for dry days, the warmer the better, but this time of the year in Coastal Georgia warm means humid and we have to adapt to good enough conditions. It’s always a little too windy or too humid or too cold. We don’t have the luxury to wait for the perfect day and we do the best with what we get. Other events, from family visits to work obligations, decide when we are able to continue working. We keep pushing but we can’t always walk at the pace we would like and our March deadline is getting closer every day.

Kate is also taking the lead in re-organizing our stuff to re-enter the boat with our long discussed PileSystem©. One pile is named Back to the boat, one is For Sale/Donation, one is PermanentStorage and one is Trash. There are more complicated subpiles that I still quite don’t understand, but I have a blind faith in Kate’s skills and I simply make myself available to follow orders, which for today consists in migrating everything we don’t need from inside the boat with the same formula: Store, Give Away or Dump.

As we work to change our mindset and we go through our belongings I am feeling a profound appreciation for the place we have been living for the last two years. The itch of going back to the ocean has often disturbed my ability to see all the gifts the Golden Isles provided us with, from wonderful friends to work opportunities, all surrounded by beautiful wilderness and by the warmth of a great sailing community. We and Tranquility went through a lot during this time, more than we could have possibly hoped for when we first launch from New Bedford, MA.

My parents recently visited us from Italy. It was their first trip to the US and  we showed them around and took them to our favorite spots in this part of Georgia. We weren’t able to see them all, as they are too many. Through their amused eyes I could see once again how wonderful this coast is from many different points of view. There will a be time for goodbye and as we approach it the feelings of gratitude and nostalgia begin to pay us a visit. But it’s not time yet, we are still here and we have to keep the paint flow.

Video: fair winds to all the sailing couples

There is always a mixture of happiness and sadness when you see your friends leaving. You are sad because you are going to miss them, and you are happy because they are set for an exciting adventure. You are also jealous, because this is ultimately what you want to do, but you have to wait just a little more.

Roberto and Vanessa aboard Tranquility in Fairhaven, MA
Roberto and Vanessa aboard Tranquility in Fairhaven, MA

With these mixed feelings we salute Roberto and Vanessa (check her blog!), and wish them all the best for their life.

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

Seek and Destroy

Mid March may not be the best time to start thinking about 2015 resolutions. Getting through the first quarter of the year however helps to skim the unreasonable off the cauldron of expectations. The recent  approval of my permanent resident status (Green Card) gives us more oxygen and several degrees of freedom to think about the next moves, and what is going to be with our lives. So with this renewed spirit one should think that now the way is all downhill (or downwind). Well, that’s not exactly the case.

First we have to ask ourselves one question: are we ready to resume cruising? Sadly the answer is no, and even if it’s unreal to think that one day Tranquility will be in perfect shape, with every detail addressed and we will be full “ready”, loaded with enough cash to sustain the costs of cruising, we have to be honest and admit that the day we are cutting dock lines and sail away is not imminent.

We were contemplating a summer cruise of New England shores, the same shores that saw us on the first chapter of our endeavor. The idea was to leave Coastal Georgia in May-June and head north to savor the wonderful summer in New England. That area had been my home for two summers, the first one as professional crew on Superyachts, and the second as a boat owner who was assembling his boat to go cruising. In neither case I had the option to freely roam the coves and anchorages and to explore historical and naturalistic points of interest, as I was alway “on duty”. It seems that this desire has to wait a little longer.

But why this is not possible next summer? Well something happened while we were wintering in Brunswick, waiting for the green light of the Green Card. And that something was me. I started to take apart Tranquility even more than I did during the previous months. One piece leads to another, and nearly every single component of the deck has been removed. The boom lays down on the deck, the electric motor and batteries hauled out, part of navigation station ripped off. Kate and I observed this process happening with fear and awe, as spectators of an ineluctable fate.

Removing rotten teak on the bow stem
Removing rotten teak on the bow stem

There no such a thing like a small or partial refit. Tranquility was in shape enough to sail the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and she did a good job in protecting us from the severe winter but yet she is not as we imagine her. There is a real Tranquility and a dream one, and the reason why we are investing more time and money is because this two Tranquilities are still too far apart from each other. To bridge that gap the extent of the refit must be enlarged.

Refurbishing the galley
Refurbishing the galley

It is extremely difficult for someone doing their first refit to accurately assess the time, expenses and details of preparing a boat for a voyage. I did other refits on different boats, and no matter the budget and the expertise involved it seems that project management and boat refits cannot go hand in hand. The process is pretty much the same: I start with a little improvement, like re-grouping the batteries in a more rational position and then I have to modify the existing navigation station to host the batteries, remove the existing electrical system, build new floor, and so on… For some reason this path lead to the replacement of the existing ladder and the creation of new and bigger counter space. Little by little every out of date part of the boat is going to be replaced or repaired or refurbished.

A little more destruction
A little more destruction

We have to say that Brunswick is definetely a good place for refitting your boat all year around. Almost too good as departure keep being postponed.

Brunswick, where the hell is that?

This is where we live
This is where we live

We initially moved to Brunswick when James Baldwin offered me an apprentship after visiting us on Tranquility. We were transiting in Jekyll Island, getting ready to land in Florida and find us a good spot to make some money and improve the boat. We never make it further than St.Mary’s on the State Border. We decided instead to give James and Brunswick a chance. After one year we are still here and this must mean that Brunswick is not a bad place at all.

Even if sometimes I feel like we ran aground in the marshes of Glynn, it’s remarkable how many good things happened to us here. We had been introduced to the South, with its culinary specialties (see Oyster Roast and Low Country Boil) and the proverbial courtesy warm hospitality of the population. Soon enough we friended some special people, keen souls who are rooted here or following a similar pat, ran aground. Kate is already a notable person in the community and I personally learned a lot working side by side with James Baldwin, having helped him in many of his sailboat refits.

Tranquility is not ready also because my standards have risen and seeing what James did on other boats changed the idea of what is possible and impossible in terms of boat customization. While we were summering and wintering here few important things had happened. Kate and I got married in very hot day in Woodbine, GA. Subsequently I applied for a Green Card which was approved just recently. The Green Card process itself was very demanding and time consuming, kind of a part time job. No wonder it was a very busy time here in Georgia!

Anyway, we can’t afford to live in a perpetual dream of boat perfection. Wether Tranquility will be closer to perfection or not, winter is coming, this time with some tropical weather and crystal clear waters waiting for us. The time of the distruction must end… just let me deal with a couple little more things that I don’t like…

Misty Mountain Hop

Mountain wilderness has always fascinated me, long before the ocean did. The Alps are just at a stone’s throw from my hometown in Italy, and most of my growing up memories are related to walking in the woods, swim in mountain lakes and climb rocky peaks.

When it was time to figure out where to travel for our New Year’s Holidays it wasn’t difficult to pick the mountains. Kate and I needed a change of scenario from Coastal Georgia and the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Atlanta were the closest available option. Relatively close, I have to say, as it takes almost 7 hours driving to get there from Brunswick.

Even if life is sweet in the marshes of Glynn I felt the need to look at a different landscape. It takes some courage to find the time and the determination to do it, to subtract it to social life, work and money and general everyday schedule that ends up trapping our lives. It so much rewarding to be able to leave and go, and see what you haven’t seen before, and I am so lucky to share this attitude with Kate. We can say that we took  our souls on a date.

New Year's Eve ©Kate Zidar
New Year’s Eve ©Kate Zidar

With the burden/blessing of a multiple course feast we had for New Year’s Eve and tired by the consequently cooking and clean-up we jumped on the car the very first day of 2015 and started the journey. We killed two birds with one stone (I am practicing stone’s related idioms) visiting Kate’s siblings in Atlanta. It was nice to spend holiday time with family. Atlanta is so close yet so far there are not many opportunities to do it in the course of the year, when the Schedule reign.

After the Atlanta stop we drove up the mountains to a cabin in Chattahochee National forest. The forecast for the weekend was heavy and non/stop rain. Leaden sky, misty and grey, a true Appalachian atmosphere. We had to make a change in our plan, from hiking to sight seeing, using our car to explore the scenic roads of the Blue Ridge mountains.

Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi
Cabin portrait ©Fabio Brunazzi

UNICOI STATE PARK

Nestled in the Georgia Mountains, Unicoi is a state park that surrounds the 53-acre Unicoi Lake on Smith Creek. Kate dragged me to see the Lodge, which is a fancy building that serves conference groups, families and individuals with guest rooms, meeting space, restaurant and catering. We had no business there but to get a bit of free wi-fi to continue our planning of the visits. Nonetheless the staff was very welcoming and allowed us to walk around freely and to visit the building. They also gave us a straight forward advice: if we are interested in booking a room during low season we should just bypass the reservation area of the website and call the lodge: when the season is low they are always willing to meet your budget for a room in the lodge. Forewarned is forearmed.

HELEN, GA A FAKE ALPINE TOWN

Economic development strategies are to be judged by their effectiveness and the one that transformed Helen, GA into a touristic destination was a very successful one, even though bizarre. Once a logging town, Helen suffered a severe economic depression until a group of businessmen decided to invest and create a replica of a Bavarian village in the Alps in the 70s. Even national franchises as Huddle House and Wendy had to surrender to the style imposed by the zoning authority. Today Helen is a popular destination, with many restaurant and shopping areas.

We were unimpressed by Helen (as you see no pictures were taken), which is a bit disgusting for the kitsch style and the obvious inauthentic architecture. We had to take at least a stroll through the city and dine out. Thanks to Kate who is always able to extract local knowledge from store employees, we found the best restaurant in town, which obviously is not Bavarian and it doesn’t even have a Bavarian-style building. Bigg Daddy’s proved to be an authentic non-german restaurant and we still remember with pleasure the Jumbo Wings with lemon pepper hot sauce!

ANNA RUBY FALLS

Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi
Kate and the Falls ©Fabio Brunazzi

The twin waterfalls lie in the hearth of the Chattahoochee National Forest and can be reached after a short and pleasant walk from the parking lot, the ideal condition for our rainy day. So when we hit the road to our NW route to McCaysville we made our first stop at the falls, where we had a wet little hike, some moment of meditation in the mist and a curious encounter with a pine-needle/spaghetti worm.

The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi
The spaghetti worm ©Fabio Brunazzi

MOUNTAIN CROSSINGS

Visiting the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center at Neels Gap was like a pilgrimage for us, as the site is an important crossing of the Appalachian Trail. In 2012 Kate and I took a summer trip to Maine and we visited Baxter State Park and Mount Katadhyn, the northern end of the AT. We were fascinated to learn about the AT and dreamed that one day we could hike it.

The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar
The Hostel at Walasi-Yi ©Kate Zidar

Walasi-Yi is a Cherokee word for “big frog” and it’s the original name of this area at Neels Gap. The native american people used to have a village very close to the actual position of the building, but they had to leave through the infamous “Trail of Tears”, the removal of the Cherokee Indians and other native tribes from their life long home in 1838. According to eyewitness John G. Burnett, “… many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefoot. […] The trail of the exiles was a trail of death. They had to sleep in the wagons and on the ground without fire.”

A recount of the "Trail of Tears"
A recount of the “Trail of Tears”

The actual stone building was built in 1934. Through the years it served as restaurant and dance hall, and today it houses a Hostel and an Outfitter shop right on the Appalachian Trail, which passes through the building, marking the only covered portion of the trail’s 2100 plus miles.

HANK B.

Our itinerary was designed around a specific appointment. We wanted to go and visit Hank, a man we met exactly one year ago in Cumberland Island. He was very interested int Tranquility, sitting at the dock by the ferry and we started to chat. After few words, we were all sat in the cockpit eating nuts an talking about sailing, and life afloat. He offered to trade his mountain cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains for our boat. We felt very tempted but we sticked with Tranquility. When we decided to go up in the Blue Ridge Mountains we called him, to see if he was still around, and he invited us to meet him in McCaysville, where he lives.

Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar
Old copper mine in Ducktown, TN ©Kate Zidar

Hank took us on a tour of the area, first crossing the border to Tennessee, where we visited the abandoned copper mines in Ducktown. The scars of the mining is still evident, but trees are starting to grow back and repopulating the area. For Kate this was the sign of a profound legacy with her Pennsylvania ancestors who used to work in a mine town.

The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
The system of dams on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar
olympic course
Olympic Course on Ocoee River ©Kate Zidar

The second point of interest that Hank showed us was the system of dams on the Ocoee River. TVA manages the dams to produce electricity and to control the river flow for recreational purpose. The whitewater course on the Ocoee River was created for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and it is dependent by the water control system of the dams. In Spring, when they open the water, a group of kayakers and whitewater rafters gather to run the first wave down the river. Sounds like great fun!

TALLULAH GORGE

The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar
The gorge from up top ©Kate Zidar

Weather improved the following day so before driving back to the lowcountry we stopped in a gorge-ous place. Tallullah Gorge is a set of waterfalls that flows in a steep little canyon. The interpretative center give tons of informations about the history and the nature of the Appalachian Region, and the trails around the waterfalls are easy and accessible.

The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar
The gorge at the bottom ©Kate Zidar

Walking around the gorge on a finally sunny day gave us the opportunity to discuss some of the plans we have for 2015. After a static 2014, where we consolidated our situation after leaving New England in a hurry, we expect to start travelling again. There are plans to point Tranquility’s bow on a northern route later in Spring/Summer, to explore the great crusing grounds of New England. There is also a plan for a family meeting in Italy next August, in the beautiful scenario of the Alps. Quod erat demonstrandum, I live on the Ocean but I belong to the Mountains.

Launching sailboat Atom

The past week I had the opportunity to help James Baldwin to launch his Pearson Triton “Atom”, a 28 ft sailboat that James took around the globe twice. Atom got back in the water after an extensive refit. The Columbia 29 and the Pearson Triton are very similar designs, so Atom it’s a an ideal example to see how to fit Tranquility as an offshore cruising yacht. James and Mei made an excellent job with this refit and Atom looks better than ever. The northerly wind offered perfect sailing conditions in the Marshes of Glynn and we made it safely to the dock enjoying the day on the water.

Blue water, green land

It’s been a while now since last time we went cruising. I am lucky enough to go out for quick daysails with James Baldwin on his F27 trimaran in St.Simons Sound. Tranquility is chained to the dock, her interiors are torn apart once again, tools and building materials scattered all over and a rich ecosystem of sea creatures is growing on her hull.

Trimaran

Tranquility tied at the dock
Tranquility tied at the dock

The long-term landlubber world is back with sweet and sour feelings. The awe for huge size fridge and freezer, water and ice dispenser, laundry anytime, full size shower and wide spaces is slowly disappearing and fading behind the curtains of normality and habit.

From this safe and comfortable territory the visions of the open ocean are haunting me. As frequently happens for the process of remembering, which is bounded to the sense of smell, what keeps stalking me is the smell of blue waters. Out there, starting dozen of miles from the coast and extending to thousands, there is a peculiar smell, a smell of fresh air and spindrift, a smell of gliding birds and jumping fishes, a smell of biomass drifting just below the surface busy in their photosynthesis and cellular respiration cycles, a smell of clouds and winds and evaporation and condensation. This is blue water smell.

This is where you find blue water smell
This is where you find blue water smell

When you miss something you start to recognize its value. That’s how I feel now that we have to stay on land for some more time, looking for a future departure that has not a date yet. The comforts of life in the society are not enough to nourish a soul who experienced the blue water. I feel that too much comfort is killing me.

But life on land is not without pleasures. I am enjoying having breakfast in the backyard, in company of a wide range of color and sounds. The squirrels are busy running up the pecan trees, birds are quietly scooting around, flying bugs patrol the weeds. Behind the fence I face while sipping my coffee lays a whole universe of intricate vegetation. This adjacent lot is part of the priopriety but has gone fallow, and when that happen in South Georgia you have to expect a massive uncontrolled growth. And so, among the duties of a busy land life and the never ending boat works, we are fashioning to embark in a new adventure: recapture the jungle and make it livable, ensuring a good level of biodiversity and creating a little and safe niche for human activities.

Safe Backyard facind the jungle © Kate Zidar
Safe backyard facing the jungle © Kate Zidar

The first step of this adventure started cutting the combination lock of the gate with the grinder. Once the access was granted we started the exploration of the jungle and made our own way to the creepy shed buried into the vegetation. Inside the shed we found any kind of treasures, including a couple of chairs to add to the collection of the backyard, more tools for the garden, building materials, a lots of other items all piled in a chaotic way.  After this first incursion, we withdrew behind the safe line of the fence to elaborate a future attack strategy.

Conquering the shed © Kate Zidar
Conquering the shed © Kate Zidar

This gardening adventure is keeping my mood up from the blues of blue water nostalgia as I am elaborating a personal project: I would love to make a place for Zen meditation practice inside the garden. I think it’s a good way to immerse myself in the nature and temporarily substitute the smell of blue water with the smell of a garden. The presence of nature is very important to me, there I find real comfort in this increasingly industrialized and technological society.

SUP in the Marshes of Glynn

 
 
About and about through the intricate channels that flow
Here and there,
Everywhere,
Till his waters have flooded the uttermost creeks and the low-lying lanes,
And the marsh is meshed with a million veins,
That like as with rosy and silvery essences flow
In the rose-and-silver evening glow.
Farewell, my lord Sun!
 
Sidney Lanier – The Marshes of Glynn
 

When Sidney Lanier composed the poem “The Marshes of Glynn” the city of Brunswick was very different than today. But because the surrounding marshes are protected from development, what he was admiring more than 150 years ago is still there untouched. Marshland on Georgia’s coast makes up an estimated one-third of all the salt marshes on the east coast, a unique ecosystem created by rise and fall of the tide .

I took a standup paddleboarding trip around the “Marshes of Glynn” during one of the hottest day of the year. We rented the equipment at Southeast Adventure Outfitters, and launched by the docks at the Boathouse, just by highway 17. It was nice to be out there and see birds, fishes, turtles and dolphins.

Started from New Bedford now we are here

We decided not to continue down to the cruisers’ heaven of Southern Florida as planned. We are a bit worried of what being in Florida might mean: high season prices and overcrowded anchorages/marinas. But the main reason is that we found a cozy place to be in Coastal Georgia that we want to explore deeper, also an ideal and affordable place to give Tranquility the necessary upgrades for extended bluewater cruising.

Coastal Georgia

Georgia has a short but beautiful coastline, with lots of inlets, islands and rivers. The tide here has a big impact, with ranges up to 7 ft. (2,13 m) or more during spring tides, with consequent strong currents. It changes the shape of the coast every six hours. We can only move around at certain times and the tide stream is often stronger than the wind so we have to keep it in mind when anchoring and docking. People here are warm and welcoming and we had the best shrimps so far enjoying what they called “Lowcountry boil” in Jekyll Island. Cumberland Island is what made us come here. Kate wanted to encounter the wild ponies that live free on the island so badly and she made it the liet-motiv of our sail down the East Coast : “I want to see wild ponies! I want to see the wild ponies! When are we stopping to see the wild ponies?

Departing South Carolina

We had a wonderful beginning of 2014, and thanks to the vicinity of Kate’s family we could explore the surrounding of Beaufort and St.Helena Island, and also enjoy some family time. We left Dataw Island, our previous stop in South Carolina, on 8th January with sustained winds and 6-10 foot waves. Some of them crashed into the cockpit, Kate and I had a couple each during our watches. It was a downwind gybin’ night zigzagging our route past the busy Savannah entrance and the following Sounds. Tranquility surfed downwind the steep waves, but keeping her on course was a hard job with the tiller, even with just the the jib and a deep reefed mainsail.

We approached Doboy Sound with favorable tide and ended up dropping the hook in Duplin River along Sapelo’s Island. It was a relief after the rough surfing and bird and dolphins soon showed up to welcome us in the calm waters. Our idea was to meet friends of ours who were doing some volunteering work on the island but we found out they had just left. After a sound nap we checked the forecast and noticed bad weather approaching from South. Duplin River is exposed to south so we moved the very next day during a thick fog, finding our way into North River, about three miles from Darien, GA.

Bad weather on our way

There we decided it was safe. We kept checking the forecast as something bad was expected for Saturday in the afternoon. We enjoyed being at anchor in the middle of nowhere, with the only company of wildlife, and the sounds of nature with the wind howling and the rain falling. We cooked wonderful meals and collected rainwater for surplus bathing (always a treat), worked on the boat projects. I had wonderful reading sessions. In the meanwhile the thunderstorms alert became a tornado watch. We dressed up in foul weather gear, ready for action.

The blow lasted less than ten minutes, very violent though. Our anchor didn’t drag a single inch but I am glad it was a just very short blast. We had two casualties: one of Kate’s babbucce (italian for slippers) and one of the planks of the companionway door (!!). We are still trying to recover from such losses, especially the beloved babbuccia. In less than 1 hour a double arch rainbow and a breathtaking sunset showed up and everything was calm and cheerful. Later other cruisers in the area told us that their wind instruments went over 60 kts during one of the gusts. It could be the case that sailors are worse liars than fishermen, but even if these top speeds never occurred we had severe winds and we were happy to be in a sheltered anchorage.

Sailing South

There was a break from Southerlies after the thunderstorms so the very next day we had an early start and went back to sea to keep sailing south. Light westerlies were forecasted and we were able to sail as far as St. Simons Sound, that is hands down the busiest inlet we encountered on the East Coast, with cargo ships everywhere. Our destination was Cumberland Island and feral ponies (of course!) but we had to stop in Jekyll Island because the wind dropped and the current was switching direction. After the plantation era Jekyll Island was developed to be the resort island of the very wealthy before yellow fever outbreaks and the Great Depression put the exclusive resort in financial difficulties. It’s also here that in 1910 the Federal Reserve was created, and in 2010 Bernanke stayed on the island to commemorate the 100 years anniversary. Today the island is partly a resort (much less exclusive) but by legislative mandate sixty-five percent of the island is and will remain in a mostly natural state.

Tranquility meets Atom

In Jekyll Island we had a very nice surprise. We received a message from James Baldwin of Atom Voyages who wanted to meet us and show us around Brunswick. I corresponded with him during last summer’s refit asking for information  and he started to follow our blog noticing our tracker getting close to the Brunswick area.

After several circumnavigations and ocean passages with Atom (a Pearson Triton) James moved there to dedicate in yacht refits. He showed up with some gifts from his garden (lemons and grapefruits, home made oats biscuits!) and with much curiosity for Tranquility. He was particularly interested in our electric engine set up. I very happily showed him the work we did on Tranquility, and I tried to get any possible advice on all the issues and repairs we still have to do to improve our boat. He very kindly drove us on a tour to the groceries store and to his house where we met his wife Mei and Buddy the dog… and of course Atom, who was resting on boat stands for her third comprehensive refit.

Cumberland!

Rested and well stocked we moved forward to visit Cumberland Island. Approaching the island from North was amazing sailing in flat water, we moved fast all the way down to the end of Brickhill River where we anchored close to the dock in Plum’s Orchard.

Cumberland Island is a National Park, Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island. Several trails and service roads depart from Plum Orchard. We chose the path going East, to see the beach side and the Ocean but soon we found ourselves trapped in the wilderness, the trails meandered through sand dunes and swamps making impossible to continue. We started to worry about alligators. We had closed encounters with wild ponies, armadillos, wild pigs and many birds, luckily no alligators.

After visiting the central part of the island from the Plum Orchard’s dock access we moved south, where the Carnegie Mansion of Dungeness lies. This is a more developed part of the island, where the ferries land to take visitors. The sea was a bit rough and we had some thrilling moments trying to dock Tranquility to the visitor’s pontoon. The pontoon is a public free dock but its use is consented only from sunrise to sunset, so we had to depart after the visit.
This time we made it to the Ocean. The beach on Cumberland Island is very beautiful and wide, full of shells and birds and wild ponies. It was lovely to walk around the ruins of Carnegie’s mansion, see swamps, sand dunes, thick forest. I am glad Kate pushed so hard for coming here, I really enjoyed our stay.

St. Mary’s, GA

Before deciding not to continue further South we thought about visiting St.Mary’s, a little river town that has a mysterious attraction over cruisers. The anchorage is excellent and very protected but the facilities in the town are nothing special. The marina is very cheap, but you get what you pay for: very run down and damaged docks, terrible showers, no wi-fi in a close range, groceries and shopping are several miles out of town. Despite this fact a lot of boats come here and stay around for very long time. The city per se is very pretty, and it’s one of the oldest settlements in the country, the waterfront is very scenic. It is also the gateway access to Cumberland Island. Our feelings were mixed at the beginning, and we still don’t understand what is the main attraction of this place. But here we have been now for a whole week, participating in the social life of the town, so it looks like we are falling for this mysterious place nonetheless.

Next phase

Our Plan is to get back to Brunswick by the beginning of February, and stop there for few months. The third part of our project is about to begin and will concern how to transform Tranquility into an ocean cruiser while we forge relationships in the area. Our trip down the East Coast resulted in an extended shakedown. The boat is in very great conditions but she needs few enhancements before we can project longer ocean cruising. We feel that a quiet place like coastal Georgia would be a safe environment, reasonably warm and it can help us making the good decisions while moving along the project.