On our quest to master the art of sailing we enjoyed a couple of flotilla holidays in the Greek Islands and, on one of these, we were presented with the ‘Fashionably Late’ award by our ‘hosties’ at the closing ceremony. Whilst others were keen to get to the next location and the nearest bar, we stayed out, looking for the wind, trying out different things, learning to heave-to etc., and were always the last boat in. I can honestly say the Gin and Tonic tasted even better after a full days sailing and each day we felt a tad closer to achieving our dream of sailing the Caribbean. Two years into our Caribbean adventure and it appears we are still the king and queen of ‘Fashionably Late’. Sixteen hours late to be precise, on both our most recent voyage from Jamaica to Ile a Vache in Haiti and a similar tardiness on our previous voyage from Cuba to Jamaica. How did we get this so wrong? I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to passage planning; plotting the course using Navionics and then entering all the waypoints, manually, into our Garmin Chartplotter. In our experience, Picaroon will average 5 knots so I can work out the approximate time we are likely to reach each waypoint and our final destination. All sounding good so far? Well yes unless you are going east, into the Equatorial Current and you have the Trade-winds on your nose. After weeks of waiting for a favorable weather window to make the crossing to Haiti, rather optimistically, we honed in on a band of calmer weather on passageweather.com which looked as if we could make the thirty-six hour crossing, departing Port Antonio at 2am Friday morning and arriving at 2pm Saturday. I plotted a course to take advantage of the band of calmer winds, taking us north of Navassa Island and towards the coast of Haiti, where I expected we would gain some relief from the current, coastal sailing in the lee of the Island. We should have been approaching Navassa Island in the daylight but after only a few hours, it was clear this was not going to happen; the current was just far too strong. Fuel was also a big issue as we only just had enough for about forty hours so after a quick recalculation, we decided to alter course and go south of Navassa, giving us a more direct route. As it happened this was fortunate as we watched a huge storm rage north of Navassa on our original route. Progress was slow however, especially without the engine but we knew we had to sail some of the way to reserve fuel for the entry into Ile a Vache. We cut the engine for a while but were only making between 2 and 4 knots and not in the direction we really needed to be going. We did manage to have a play with our windvane steering which worked wonderfully well for a short time but it wasn’t long before the concern over speed made us turn to the engine once more and, using engine and sails we could manage 5 knots but still didn’t seem to be making much headway against the current. Words were exchanged about the lack of fuel and I shudder now as I remember Colin uttering the fateful words ‘Well let’s not worry about it until we get down to a quarter of a tank’. As darkness came on our second night at sea, a magnificent electrical storm lit up the sky and we sat quietly in the cockpit, nervously watching the fuel gauge and contemplating the inevitable downpour. With only a short cool downdraught and a sprinkling of rain, the storm passed to the west of us but minutes later lightening started up all around us and the stars disappeared behind a huge dark mass of cloud. The fuel gauge was now swinging dangerously towards empty and a frank exchange of views took place with Colin asserting we should put up some sail, whilst I was concerned about the building seas and the oncoming storm. In the end we decided to give it a go as we were going to have to sail at some point or run out of fuel. Colin let out the Genoa and immediately we had the rail and the starboard deck under water, as the winds suddenly picked up and the heavens opened, bucketing torrents of rainwater which mixed with the seawater coming aboard. We heeled even more violently as I turned Picaroon into the wind to allow Colin to wrestle the sail back in, losing the sheets in the process which tangled up rendering our Genoa unusable. As Picaroon reared and plunged into the rising seas, raising the mainsail was out of the question so now we were in a pickle; no possibility of putting out some sail, fuel nearly spent and still about 25 miles offshore. It was all looking rather desperate. A couple in Port Antonio had told us of their particularly bad passage off Haiti and how they had resorted to putting out a ‘Mayday’ call on the VHF radio with no response whatsoever. So when Colin suggested getting on the radio to get help I was not at all hopeful. I was at the helm so could not hear exactly what he said but a few minutes later, our cockpit speaker crackled into life and a heavy eastern European accent came back asking us to confirm our position. Colin could not make out what the guy was saying due to his ongoing hearing problems so we swapped places and for the next forty minutes I leapt up and down the companionway, maintaining contact and answering questions which went a little bit like the following: Motor Tanker: This is Motor Tanker Wabbenwolf (or something similar – couldn’t make it out) we are 20 miles from your position, are you able to come alongside? Picaroon: We do not have enough fuel to motor twenty miles. Motor Tanker: Okay, we will come to you. Please confirm your position. Picaroon: Our position is ……………………. Motor Tanker: We will be with you in one hour. Question; do you have a radar reflector? Picaroon: No we do not have a radar reflector. Motor Tanker: Question; do you have fenders on board and dock lines? Picaroon: Yes we have four fenders and various docklines? Motor Tanker: Please prepare your boat to come alongside our port side. We now have visual contact and will be with you in forty minutes. During this time the storm had blown up into a force 10 and the rain was relentless. Picaroon was being tossed around like a cork with breaking seas crashing onto the deck from all sides. Picaroon: Motor Tanker, are you receiving me? Motor Tanker: Yes receiving you loud and clear, go ahead. Picaroon: Please confirm the sea state with you as it is very bad here and I am concerned about coming alongside. Motor Tanker: We are now within one mile and have the same sea state. Please try to maintain your position and we will provide you with a leeside (I guessed that meant they would come around us to provide some protection from the storm). Are you still able to maneuver? Picaroon: Yes we still have a small amount of fuel left. Motor Tanker: Please conserve your fuel and maintain your position. How much fuel do you need? Picaroon: Ten gallons would do but twenty would be even better, thank you. ……..slight delay Motor Tanker: Please confirm the amount of fuel you require in liters (definitely European then). Picaroon: We carry four twenty liter jerry cans on board (thinking we would have to give them our empties) so eighty liters will be fine, thank you. The motor tanker loomed ever closer, lit up like some weird carnival float, dazzlingly confusing the outline and layout of the vessel. I had taken the helm as Colin dashed about collecting fenders and attaching a stern dockline but the seas were so bad now that he could not make it forward to attach a line at the bow. Picaroon: Motor Tanker, Motor Tanker, over. Motor Tanker: Yes go ahead Picaroon. Picaroon: We are unable to attach a bowline and are concerned about coming alongside. Motor Tanker: Come close to our port side and we will transfer the fuel down a line. Colin took the helm on our first approach; we couldn’t even work out which was the stern or the side of the vessel in the storm until we were virtually on top of it. At the last minute we turned away and I took Picaroon back around circling outside the relatively calmer water on the leeside, fighting the huge seas to bring us back towards the tanker. Two or three more attempts and a monkey fist came aboard with a line attached to a row of men in orange jumpsuits standing on deck and gesticulating wildly. I slowed the engine but Picaroon seemed to be sliding ever closer to the pitching deck of the huge steel monstrosity so I pushed the throttle full ahead and we pulled away, losing the line and monkeyfist into the boiling cauldron around us. Several more attempts were made before the radio crackled into life again. Motor Tanker: Picaroon come around again and we will try to float the fuel out to you. This time the monkeyfist landed slap on top of our solar panels and bounced down into the cockpit. Colin retrieved the line and the orange jumpsuits dumped four 20 liter containers of fuel into the ocean, roped together. The weight of these containers is incredible and Colin struggled to retrieve them, waiting for a rising wave to help him drag them on board. The last two were particularly difficult as they were roped so close together but as he finally heaved them aboard, alarmed shouts from the deck of the tanker made me look up to find we were heading, full pelt, toward the side of the tanker. Somehow the waves had spun us around and I still had the engine in gear and the throttle on full. It is a scene I will never forget as I grabbed and swung the wheel to starboard, feeling sure we were about to impale our bowsprit into a huge steel tanker. All I could see was the grey steel of the side of the vessel as Picaroon approached but just at the last moment, she turned alongside and then away, just grazing her stern with a loud clatter as we scooted to safety. The rest is all a bit of a blur. I remained on the helm as we motored away from the tanker and Colin went below to talk to the Captain: Motor Tanker: Picaroon, please confirm you have enough fuel to continue. Picaroon: Yes thank you for your assistance. Motor Tanker: So can I now proceed to my destination? Picaroon: Yes you can and thank you again for saving us. It seemed only a few minutes before the lights of the tanker disappeared into the distance and, miraculously the storm calmed, the rain stopped and we were once again, alone in the darkness but with easily enough fuel to get us to Ile a Vache. Later we marveled at what an amazing thing that Captain and his crew had done; they had turned back 20 miles to rescue a little sailboat, spent a good hour watching us under spotlight struggling in the storm, supplied us with fuel, made sure we were OK and then sailed back 20 miles to resume their course. We were so exhausted and shell-shocked that we did not even find out the name of their vessel and despite hours of google searching I cannot find even a trace of a motor tanker with a name like Wappenwolf. Angels come in all shapes and sizes but I never thought ours would be the Captain and crew of an eastern European motor tanker. After refueling, we continued on our way as dawn approached and soon the sea turned from deep blue to turquoise as we entered the wide channel between mainland Haiti and Ile a Vache. The channel broadened out into the most beautiful bay, dotted with a flotilla of picturesque Haitian sailing boats, like a swarm of butterflies flitting across the sparkling waters. We rounded up into the small protected cove at Port Morgan and dropped anchor. Fashionably late once again but safe and alive!
We’re sitting drinking G&Ts on our yacht in Jamaica, the sun has just set leaving ribbons of pink and purple that caress the pale evening skies, it’s the end of mid-summers day in Port Antonio. It’s been a slow day most days are, here, sat in this manicured harbour with its mock Victorian buildings dotted around the perimeter of the bay. On the promenade lovers nestle on benches dotted between the cascading flowers and shrubs and gaze out to where Picaroon is anchored in the mirror calm. From the cockpit of Picaroon we watch the Jamaican world at play as they stroll in the Errol Flynn Marina Park, and it feels a little like England, It reminds me somehow of Ambleside but with more palm trees. Lush wooded hills cascade down to the shore line dotted with tidy shacks that cling on tight, served only by steep staircases of dried earth, and here and there a plume of smoke rises lazily into the dusk. In the distance, on a clear day we can see the tips of the Blue mountains, where they grow some of the worlds finest coffee. The haze from the crashing surf just beyond Navy island, that guards the entrance to Port Antonio, warns us that although all is calm here in the bay, out there in the wilds of the windward passage there’s another tropical wave sweeping through the Caribbean sea. Best stay where we are. In the day time the temperature soars into the low nineties, and if we’re lucky it will be punctuated by a heavy down pour that refreshes the heavy air, and washes our decks, that will be bone dry again within minutes of the rain ceasing. If we get too hot we dive from the swim ladder into the clear turquoise waters and make a circumnavigation of Picaroon, to cool down a little. Later we’ll have a visit from Rasta man Clive paddling his bamboo raft delivering fresh mangoes that he’s just harvested from the island. We’ll enjoy these for breakfast for the next week or so as they slowly ripen sat in their mini hammock that sways lazily beneath the spray hood. At about 4 o’clock the park is a parade of neat and tidy teenage school children, the girls in their yellow tops and maroon skirts, the boys in khaki shirts and long trousers. All are spotless, bright eyed and walking tall, destined perhaps to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, hi-tech engineers, or Rap artists that will travel to Europe, America and the world one day. This corner of Jamaica, which is really all that we’ve seen, has conspicuous signs of Christianity. Every hundred yards or so we come across another house of God, each with it’s own take on what to call its sect, and on Sunday the streets of Port Antonio are deserted, as families pack the various churches, and meeting places. Rastas’, with their welcoming handshake, make a fist and touch knuckles, touching thumbs, the right hand clenched against the heart, greets you from across the street. Their Rasta plaits, some reaching down to their waists, or wrapped into a woollen beany hat, of red yellow and green, always with a smile, and that faraway look that belies the recent imbibing of that sacred herb. We shop for fruit and veg in the open air market, a rambling alley way of Jamaican mamas with their tidy displays of vegetables and fruit. Each stall is almost a replica of the next, but the quality will vary. This lady has nice carrots, but old potatoes, another has fresh potatoes and old carrots, so we meander picking up this and that as we go. Sometimes we’ll take a detour into the covered market, alongside the alleyway. This is a warren of small stallholders who mostly sell shoes. Shoes and more shoes, going out shoes, sporty shoes, at the ball shoes, cool dude shoes, evry isle has more shoes, it’s easy to get lost in there, we only go to visit the second hand book guy. Jackie did try to find a pair of shoes that would be comfortable for sailing in, but failed. There’ll be there somewhere, but we just didn’t have the will to search, and it was much too hot anyway. Out on the streets it’s a bustling sort of a town, west street is alive with street hawkers, taxi touts, old guys sat chatting, school kids in uniform, on their way home, the bead man, the jerk pork man, the guy with one leg outside the grocery store, West street always has the same pantomime every day of the week, except on Sunday. Sunday it’s like walking into one of those out door movie sets that’s been abandoned. It does give you chance to spot things though. I love the way they write their signs, advertising what’s in their shop, and a list that had been hidden on weekdays because of an open door could now be seen. Among this list of quite normal stuff, irons, toasters, hi-fi, cell phones, then suddenly bleach, my favourite, word on the list, Wot Nots. You couldn’t make it up. It looks as though we may have to endure the rigors of Jamaica for a while longer as the weather is not playing ball. Our passage east to isle la Vache is going to hard enough as it is against the trades, so until we can see at least three days of settled weather, Jamaica is where we’re sort of stuck. I suppose there’s worse places. Top me up, please.
Errol Flynn used to stay here in Port Antonio back in the days of black and white movie stars, the posters from at least a dozen of his movies adorn the wall of the pool bar. As far as I know there wasn’t a marina here when he visited back in the 40s, well at least not this one. We’re berthed alongside the quay and it seems, we’ve finally stumbled upon civilization at last in Jamaica. The pool bar even serves delicious cheese burgers, which we have rationed ourselves to just once every other day. We have plastic cards that we carry on a cord around our necks to gain access to the dock, marina wash room and showers that work . We have drinking water, at high pressure, usually, electricity and a pump out facility for our holding tank. A few steps from Picaroon through the automatic security gate, are the very acceptable bathroom facilities, tastefully tiled, clean and function like you would expect them to at home. But it’s not cheap at $40 a day. Port Antonio is a small and calm protected bay, one side is dotted with houses nestled amongst a wooded hillside, with the town at the head of the bay. All around the Marina part of the bay is an almost English style park with pointed pagodas to shelter from the sun, and paved walk ways around the edge of the bay, it almost feels homely, like England, but a lot hotter. Little fish with yellow and black stripes swim beneath Picaroon in crystal clear water, and when we get too hot we can join them to cool off, which is a treat as most harbours are too filthy to swim in. I like Port Antonio, it’s got the feel of a real town, it’s not geared up for tourists, and apart from the handful of cruisers, you don’t see many foreign faces on the streets. This makes us targets for the hustlers, but I’m glad to say these are very few and far between, and a firm, “Don’t hustle me man” often sends them on their way. The rest of Port Antonio just goes about its business as though we weren’t there. We’re slowly getting to know the place, where the shops are, where the hardware store, and the open air market but Jamaica is not a cheap place to be, we paid about $3 for a sprig of broccoli and fags and booze are back to UK prices. The streets are full of characters, lots of Dreadlocks, mostly it seems, on older faces, cool looking dudes in reggae coloured shades, and just the odd down at heel, but not begging soul. And Jesus is everywhere, I haven’t counted the number of churches there are in the town but there’s a lot. We went out for lunch last Sunday and there was hardly a soul on the street, I suppose they were all at church, or coming and going to or from Church. The overall impression of that side of Port Antonio is that it’s a bit like being back in time where that old time religion still has a sway on the whole community. We hired a taxi yesterday when we did a big shop for essentials, Gin, tonic, eggs etc. It wasn’t a big fare as it’s only a small town. As we turned to follow our shopping down the quay, the taxi driver, Colin, good name, called me back. I thought we must have forgotten something, but Colin came towards me, grasp my hand and said “jesus loves you”, at which I was a bit taken back and I said, “and he loves you too” Although, not being plugged in to god I had to wonder how I would know that, but it was a reflex, I mean what else could I have said. And then you get to thinking that you’ve overpaid him maybe. Beany was introduced to us by Clive, more of Clive later, but Beany is a carpenter, who has made us a little box extension for our helm seat. He’s a happy round man, round face, round body, all around smile and a salt and pepper sprinkling of a beard. He wears a black beany hat with a rasta coloured band around it. Beany is perhaps in his late 50’s, and he made us a nice box, but what surprised me was this. I was having what I call a bad ear day, not hearing very well at all, and I was trying to communicate how I wanted this box built, me with hardly any hearing and Beany with his rich Jamaican accent, it was a little tricky but we got there in the end. He told me how they had mixture of herbs that cured deafness amongst other things, and that he would have some made up and that he would bring it here to the boat on Saturday. So come Saturday Beany appears with a litre bottle full of some herbal infusion that he says I should sample, twice a day. Of course being Jamaica nothings free, and I paid him the $15 dollars. Then he started telling me about how God was watching over us, in a jovial sort of tone, that he made the herbs and the skills to use them, but modern medicine has left a lot of us ignorant of where our medicines originate, in the herbs of the fields, and woodlands, all made originally by god. So trust in the Lord, I suppose he was trying to say. Christians, Jamaica is very Christian, that is apart from the Rastas. We’ve got our own pet Rasta man, he’s called Clive, and he rows a bamboo raft slowly around Port Antonio bay. Clive moves very slowly on the water, his paddle is a half section of bamboo, and fixed towards one end of his raft is the seat part of a plastic stacking chair. Somehow fixed to the raft, maybe with twine, it gives him a regal appearance as he glides towards our boat. He’s a rasta man, lean and wirey with Van Dyke brown skin and a lot of missing teeth, and he’s trading. Coconuts, mangoes, bananas, a survival knife with glow in the dark lanyard, which we bought, his mangoes took a while to ripen. We now get a visit from Clive at least once a day, but he’s not a big talker, and I don’t hear so well so making intelligent conversation is a strain. He’s what we used to call laid back, who drops by just to pass the time of day. The other day I was down a hole wrestling with a collapsed battery floor, a very tight squeeze, and very sweaty. He stayed about an hour or more just watching me work, not saying very much, just liked watching work. Jackie has run out of conversation with him, so she disappears below to clean something, when he glides by, but then she does buy a few mangos now and again. His baseball cap is threadbare at the front, his T shirt has seen better days, trousers I’m not sure about as he’s always stood up leaning over our taff rail, and gesturing for a cigarette. He’s a harmless soul, I’m sure, but he does like to over stay his welcome, or bring us stuff like seaweed called curiously Irish dumplins, but it just looks like slimy grass. He says its good for the joints, human bone joints, come on now, what are you thinking. His rasta plats fall almost to his waist, and I asked how long he’d had them, 20 years he said, but he washes regularly in the river so he’s a clean rasta. One time he reached into his plats behind his ear and produced a head of what he said was good weed man. I’m not sure how long it had been there, maybe he had just found something he’d been looking for, for a while and wanted to share the joy. I said no I’m working in a hole right now, maybe later. Later he says and paddles off to visit one of the other half a dozen boats in the bay very slowly like a meditation. It’s a cruel irony that I have this profound deafness going on in my spiritual musical home, the home of reggae, one of my favourite genres of music and can’t hear it. Well I can hear some of the sound systems that are so loud it actually hurts my ears as I pass by but as for making out rhythm and harmony my ears just don’t work that way anymore. Maybe Beany’s herbal concoction will work wonders, I hope so but for now the sounds of Port Antonio come through a veil of tinnitus, and a muted perception of the world of audio. At night on the boat I bring out my mini mixer and amplifier along with the AKG 414, and don a set of head phones to communicate with Jackie, that’s how difficult it’s become. It’s time to put some fun back in the fun bank, though, which brings me back to Errol Flynn and river rafting. Close to Port Antonio is the Rio Grande, and way back when Errol had seen the locals harvesting bananas and floating them downstream on large bamboo rafts. He thought that it would make a nice excursion and hired one of these for a trip down the river. That kind of adventure is now firmly established on the tourist trails of Jamaica and so that’s what we plan to do next week. There’s also a ride up into the Blue mountains to sample the coffee and bathe in Reach falls which are a must see whilst we’re here. We are both enjoying Jamaica, but our cruising budget is rapidly depleting and although we would love to stay much longer, and see much more, we’re going to have to move on very soon. The hurricane season is only about a month away and we need a safe haven, until November. So the plan is to head back to Luperon by circumnavigating Hispanola, taking the route along the south coast, sailing north through the Mona passage, to Samana and finally Luperon, arriving some time in June.
I left writing this until the day after our crossing of the Windward Passage from Santiago, in Cuba to Port Antonio, on the North coast of Jamaica, because yesterday I was certain I never wanted to sail anywhere again, ever. Today, 24 hours after the events of Sunday and Monday, and with time to reflect, it was, I suppose just another part of the adventure. So here’s the tale. “Should we turn around and head back to the Marina” we asked each other as we motored slowly between the towering old fortress to port and the dangerously close breaking waves bashing the jagged rocks just off to starboard. This is the exit from Santiago Bay which can accommodate fairly large tankers and cargo ships so in effect our Picaroon had bags of room as we passed between the red and green buoys. But something seemed not quite right with the engine which was either under powered or perhaps fighting a strong current. The ‘tacho’, rev counter, was stuck on zero, which can happen if the wire jumps off the connector on the main alternator and is no big deal to just push back on once the engine is shut down, so we decided to fix that little problem once we were under sail. It was about 2pm on Sunday afternoon, and we left under a very dark cloud that threatened to spill the first drops of rain we’d seen here since we arrived over two weeks ago. The seas outside the bay were quite kindly and the trade winds not too strong, except for the added downdraft from the storm cloud behind us, so we raised the genoa and the mizzen sails and Picaroon was soon sailing at about five knots. We cut the engine and I went below to check on the tacho wire. It felt loose as I pulled it away from the tab it should snap onto and as it came away there was another short wire that came with it. This wire should have been connected inside the alternator, so fixing the tacho now was going to mean dismantling the whole thing. I figured we could still use the engine without having a rev counter so I tucked it away and went back on deck to enjoy the sailing. According to the books and to others who had sailed this route, we’d have a beam reach all the way across, the best point of sail, that is with the wind blowing on the side of the boat, and at that time in the day it was blowing at about force 4, which was a perfect way to start. The sun came out and we settled into the rhythm of the sailing, swopping helming duties every couple of hours, and looking forward to reaching Port Antonio an estimated twenty hours away, in the home of Reggae music, Jamaica. We expected to arrive at about 7am Monday morning. Now neither of us really enjoy night sailing, but with the prospect of a full moon and fairly kindly seas this crossing looked like it may be a little less stressful than others we had endured. The winds had dropped a little and we raised our mainsail, albeit with a couple of reefs, and as dusk fell a big amber moon rose on the horizon. Then just to add that extra bit of magic to the scene we spotted dolphins racing alongside Picaroon, not just one or two but what seemed to be a large school, dipping and diving below our keel and one or two doing arching leaps over the face of the rising moon, simply magic. They swam with us until nightfall and then they were gone leaving us sharing big grins, perhaps this night sail was going to be different. This is the first time we have sailed through the night, without using the engine that is, and the prospect of it was a bit scary as we have no electronic gizmo to tell us the direction and strength of the wind as ours conked out a while back and we hadn’t been able to replace it. So we’re watching the sails illuminated by the full moon and feeling the direction of the wind on our cheeks like the old seadogs of the past would have done. By about 2am the seas have flattened out considerably and the wind had turned into a steady breeze so we were only doing about 3 knots but it was easy sailing and almost a pleasure, which is a nice change from our previous encounters with the ocean after dark. Towards 5am we could see the odd bright flashes of lightning way off in the distance, but too far away to bother us, our seas were silky flat, the breeze gently licking at Picaroons full set of sails. Of course it’s still night and the prospect of going forward to take down the mainsail in the dark as a precaution didn’t enter our heads, or if it did we put it to one side, as the storm looked too far away to worry us. At this point I should mention our rather nice ships bell which is brass and is attached to the mizzen mast. If Picaroon heels violently or drops into a trough in rough seas, the bell rings. Okay, back to the tale. Half an hour later all hell broke loose as the winds rose ferociously, the ships bell tolled as Picaroon heeled violently to starboard and dipped her rail into the waves that came rushing in a torrent along the decks. Next we are being drenched by an avalanche of rain as the boat lurches upright again, only to be engulfed once more as the wind howls in the rigging forcing Picaroon back towards the foaming seas rushing passed her and once again throwing tons of water along our decks and pouring back through the scuppers to whence she came. Now just a word about how we steer Picaroon, and our helm seat. The arrangement is a bit Heath Robinson to say the least. We don’t have an actual seat, so we use a portable step with a couple of cushions on it so we don’t have to stand the whole time we’re at the wheel. Now with the boat heeled at an acute angle the “seat” careers away across the deck and with it Jackie who is at the wheel when the storm hit. She’s clinging on to the wheel at an another acute angle, and I’m hanging on to whatever trying to push her and the seat back in front of the helm. It’s pandemonium, torrential rain from above, life threatening angry seas, the rail buried again in the waves, and gale force gusts coming out of the blackness, hell this is dangerous, and the bell tolled. The squall maybe lasted for only a quarter of an hour but it felt like days inside the maelstrom and within that few minutes the seas had changed from silky smooth to raging mountains. We were now being tossed this way and that, finding it impossible to stay on course. All we could do was hang on and hope that dawn wasn’t far away and that Port Antonio would soon be our safe haven. And the bell tolled. The morning became afternoon, the seas just horrible, the wind and waves constantly conspiring to drive us off course, the coast of Jamaica refusing to show itself, illusive hiding in the haze of the horizon. All afternoon we fought to keep Picaroon on course for Port Antonio, but with the swell, and the wind forcing us too far west. We had tried using the engine to get us back on course but the problem we’d had coming out of Santiago, was obviously more than just the rev counter. With full throttle it was still barely above tick over and not anywhere near full power. I tried to discover some obvious fault but drew a blank. The only way to reach port was going to be under sail and then maybe once we made it to calmer waters inshore we could tease a couple of knots out of the engine to get us into port. And the bell tolled. We started to see the vague outline of Jamaica at about 4pm but we were still some twelve miles off shore, and now west of Port Antonio by maybe eight miles. If we could get closer to the island perhaps the seas would calm down and allow us to tack back and forth against the wind but making Port Antonio before dark was now becoming impossible. Darkness fell and we were now about two miles offshore as we tried to tack back the eight miles to Port Antonio but the seas were still up and try as we may we were going nowhere. We were getting very tired and making any rational decisions about sail configurations was becoming farcical. We dropped the main, in the dark, tried less Jib, more jib, take down the mizzen, tried to coax more power out of the engine with a pair of mole grips on the accelerator lever all to no avail. And the bell tolled. The lights along the coast were stationary and a foreboding blank spot on the coast called ‘Ships Rock’ seemed to draw us closer than felt at all comfortable. We were at a loss to know how to get out of this situation, so I radioed Port Antonio to ask for advice, but no-one answered. I asked for a radio check and had an answer from a boat called Silver Heels which was in Port Antonio. He said something about the marina police trying to contact us, but we hadn’t heard them. Rick, on Silver Heels said he would stand by and listen to relay any message should we need assistance. This was at about 10pm, when the wind changed and the land breeze started, only gently but we raised all our sails, again in the dark, although with a full moon that kept peeping in and out of some heavy looking clouds. Now with full sails and the tired little engine puttering away we were starting to make progress, slow but steady, at about 2 knots in the right direction but still running slap bang into the huge swell that would bounce Picaroons bowsprit high into the air before we crashed down into the next trough, and the bell tolled. Slowly we clawed our way eastward trying to see any signs of the buoyed channel that would mean we’d made it, well almost. At about 11pm we thought we had spotted red and green flashing lights and headed in that direction when out of the dark came a blazing search light. On an outboard powered skiff were two marine police officers who had come to see what difficulties we were in. We explained our problem, and they said we were two and a half miles from the marina. They said that they would stay with us, and see us safely into port. With Picaroon under full sail and the seas bouncing us both dangerously close we decided to drop all sails to make it less likely we would career into them. The seas had begun to calm down just enough limp in with the engine doing 2knots. The bell had stopped tolling. With a light hung off the stern of their boat we followed them into the bay and finally pulled up alongside the dock in Port Antonio right behind Silver Heels. Rick, was there to help with lines as well as the two Jamaican marine policemen, it was 1.38am on Tuesday morning, we were 16 hours late. We profusely thanked the Police, and Rick, flopped into the cockpit, gave each other a very big long hug, and poured ourselves a rather large tot of Santiago Rum. Then the heavens opened, torrential rain poured through our leaky bimini and bounced off the cockpit floor. We put on our foulies and just sat talking, sipping, and getting soaked but almost oblivious of the rain. Then we had another tot, and one for the road and just a little one before bed, go on then,…. my hero, ……………..no, you were the hero,…………….. no it was you,…….no it was us team Williams,…….. oh and I’m going to get a sock for that bloody bell, or better still have its clanger removed, surgically if necessary, ……yush I agrees, wiv bells on.
My legs have refused to work without a supreme effort, my arms limply hang beside me and I’m hotter than the surface of the sun. Sweat drops in buckets making the rim of my hat seem as though it’s a bowl of hot water balanced on my forehead and I’m starting to lose the will to live. It’s about 1pm and our taxi driver has led us to a restaurant in the centre of Santiago that he is recommending for lunch, but as we slip inside the gloom the air becomes even hotter still, devoid of any movement, and the table we’re led to has become the home of a thousand flies flitting about on the glasses cutlery and crockery set out neatly on a white table cloth. It looks like a popular spot, and the food on the adjoining tables looks rather delicious. We’re with Rudolf and Lisa who quickly agree that this is not going to be a pleasant experience and we tell the taxi driver to take us somewhere else. That somewhere else is Dolores plaza where we find another restaurant which is up two flights of stairs, and has a table on a balcony where at least there’s a semblance of a breeze. This is so much more agreeable, even if the food may not be up to the standard of the last place we were at, it’s a great vantage point to watch the comings and goings of Santiago folk passing through the square below. There’s a curious incident that catches our attention happening below where a moto concho has been stopped by a policeman. It appears that he has been stopped for carrying a male passenger with a propane bottle. The guy with the propane bottle is protesting quite vigorously when a second officer appears on the scene. He is checking, what perhaps is, the propane guy’s ID, then gestures the moto man to be on his way. About fifteen minutes later a police car arrives, the propane is loaded into the trunk and the offender is frisked by a third officer before being handcuffed and bundled into the back of the police car and driven away. Of course, from the distance we are away, we have no idea what has led to this guy being arrested but can only assume that it’s something to do with carrying propane in a public place. If that’s so they should see what they carry on moto conchos in the Dominican Republic, where half the population would be in jail. After lunch we left to do some shopping for AA batteries and glue for my dentures and got very hot again, before slipping into an air-conditioned store for some relief and pillow cases, which they didn’t have, although we did manage to buy some tinned Polish ham and a sort of Cuban version of corn flakes. The sign on the store said ‘varidades’ and certainly did have a strange mixture of various products, from plastic ash-trays to mattresses and a peculiar collection of ‘delicacies’ from foreign parts. By Cuban standards, this was a big store and it was large enough to spread from one street to another. We had left our bags in security as we entered and wandered through the store and up some steps to the food department where there was another exit onto a parallel street. With a couple of tins and cereal in our shopping basket, we asked the check-out guy if we could pay back in the other department. Si Senor as he pointed back through the store. We plodded back, enjoying the air-con, but there was no check-out at the rear exit so I had to collect our bags, exit and walk around the block, whilst Jackie plodded back up the steps and returned to the check out at the other exit, taking an age to negotiate a small queue and staff with plenty of time on their hands. Back out on the baking street we ran into an off duty customs officer from the Marina who insisted on helping us find batteries and directed us round to a photographic supplier, which surprisingly didn’t have any. To be quite honest I had now lost all interest in AA batteries but he insisted we try a second shop. By now I was wilting beyond belief, but felt obliged to follow him as he was just trying to be helpful. The second shop came up trumps but my stomach was feeling the after effects of a dubious lunch and I just wanted to get back to our hotel for a lie down and a session in the bathroom. At every turn there’s some hustler who wants to be your friend, find you a taxi, or point you into a tourist trap and the sweat is dripping, stinging your eyes, making you into a very snappy ungrateful member of the human race, who could do with a burst of English drizzle, anything to alleviate the crushing heat of Santiago City. This you see is what being a tourist is all about, a stranger in a strange land prone to a myriad of aggravations that just drain you beyond belief, until you wonder why you subject yourself to such a debilitating experience. Finally, back in the cool of our cute little Cuban pension, I lay prone and naked on the bed and snooze for the next couple of hours. Hardly refreshed at 7pm I get up to join our friends for a night on the town, looking for some Cuban music and a few mojitos to quell the pain of being a tourist. As it turned out, the night turned up some fine music and the mojitos made all the difference to my well-being (see Part 2). Out on the streets again the heat of the day had barely dropped a degree or two but the night was yet young and, although still drained from the day, it was time to find a bar, some rum and music. Hardly a stones’ throw from our pension we ran into a rastifarian guy we had “met” in the afternoon near the cultural centre of Santiago. I don’t know why, perhaps because I had my uke sticking out of my bag in the afternoon, he figured I was a fellow traveller. Well I do have a soft spot for reggae, and within minutes he had been giving me this touching closed fist greeting. He was a bit plump, with specs and, with his dreads wrapped around his head like a sort of turban, was a peculiar sight in amongst the Cuban populace of Santiago; perhaps the only rasta in the city, a bit like that British comedy where the guy in Wales is the only gay in the village. Anyway he’s adopted our little quad of me, Jackie, Rudolf and Lisa, outside a music bar where the music doesn’t start till 8.30pm and it’s only about 7.30pm. He’s going to be our guide; not that we want one but that seems to be the way things work. He leads us off to another bar that’s got music, he says, but on the way there we hear the sound of a live band that is set up and playing in the street a 100yds away. We take charge and head for the band in the street. There’s this seven piece band all electric instruments and a PA system about to kick off and we’re there to catch this impromptu session and our Rasta guy, Jammin, has tagged along, as we’re now big buddies. The band turn out to be particularly good and within a few minutes of them starting their session Jackie and Lisa have both been led into the road by a couple of Cuban guys to Salsa, Merengue, or whatever the dance is they’re dancing in the street whilst me and Rudolf ply our video cameras to capture the flavour of the moment. Unfortunately there’s no bar nearby and after a couple of numbers we slope off with Rasta man, Jammin, to find rum and some more music. This turns out to be the Buccaneer bar where just as we arrive the live band stops and the room is full of some disco type music playing on a cheap stereo. Jammin is being very over friendly and there’s something in the air going on when we say we want to leave to go back to check out this other bar. He suddenly becomes Mr hustler, demanding money for showing us around, money for his daughter, or whatever, and he turns into being a bit threatening. Not in a dangerous way but it felt uncomfortable, Rudolf gave him a couple of dollars and we left to negotiate our way back to the first bar. Earlier on, outside this bar, I had been showing my uke to an oldish guy sporting a fedora and his young friend with a cut down Mohican. They both showed a lot of curiosity in this strange instrument and the old guy seemed to know how to knock a tune out of it. We slipped into the smallest of clubs with a row of about four seats about three feet from the stage where the band was already up and running. Up on the stage was the old guy on guitar and the younger one on viola, cooking up a storm. Along with them were two singers, a double bass, a conga player, bongo player, someone on cowbell and maracas and another guitar player. There was no amplification; nada, but in such a small place you could catch every instrument and hear the harmonies. It was pure magic that soon had the floor alive with dancers, although there was very little floor to dance on. We, in our front row chairs, were now up front and personal with the band and dancers. The walls were adorned with hundreds of photos and portraits of past performers stretching back a long way into the past. It felt like this club, like perhaps the old Marquee in London, had been here a long time, it had that sort of an atmosphere. The band, called Septepto Tropical would hit a groove and then milk it and milk it until the whole room was full of dancers including us. Thing is you don’t need to know how to salsa when the floor is this crowded so you just shuffle about which is enough to look like you’re doing the samba. I suppose it was about midnight, and three or four Mojitos’ later that we tumbled out into the street. Septepto Tropical had wrapped up, or maybe they were just on a break, but for us it was time to head back to the pension and have a lie down, all in all it had been an exhausting but exhilarating couple of days in Santiago. The tranquillity of being back aboard Picaroon, bobbing about quietly in the harbour the next day was going to be a treat, after the heat of the city. Unfortunately we arrived back on Sunday afternoon to find a large PA system set up on shore at a nearby bar. For the next six hours we had to endure the rantings of some Cuban DJ playing their version of Rap at ever increasing volume. The PA system wasn’t big enough to take care of the bass, which bounced off the walls and back to Picaroon sounding like a giant distorted wobble board. It was truly awful, and continued till 7pm, when, at long last we fell into the tranquillity of the evening, a game of backgammon, a little more rum and bed time, to dream of drizzle and the cold grey mornings of England. Well maybe not, but sometimes, just sometimes I think, wouldn’t that be nice, but then you don’t get to see Septepto Tropical and dance Salsa till midnight.
Well what a difference a day makes, the sail from Labadee to Cap Mole had convinced me that this whole idea of sailing the Caribbean was far from idyllic, and often bloody dangerous. So with, let’s say, a little trepidation, we now had the voyage from Cap Mole to Santiago, which meant crossing the Windward Passage. The clue is in the name as to what one might expect from this channel that runs between Haiti and Cuba. Get the timing wrong and it could be a horrible, although only fifty miles across, at the shortest distance, at an average speed of 5 knots, that could still spell ten hours of hell, get it right and it just may be unpleasant. The plan was to wait in Cap Mole until the trades died, which they do most nights, and slip out before God notices you’ve gone. Lisa and Rudolf on Tulum 3, who have our only access to weather info, reckoned that we should leave at about 3am, or earlier, depending on the trades behaving themselves. Now to anybody who doesn’t sail this must all sound like a nonsense, surely you want the wind, and the answer to that is yes, and no. To make a passage is not like being out for the day, playing about in boats. We want to go in a particular direction and often the wind won’t be playing ball, so you have to call on Mr Engine Sir to get you where you want to go and so it’s a bit of a lottery as to whether you get to haul up the sails. The motion of the boat under engine is always very rolly and unpleasant so we need the seas to be as calm as you could reasonably hope for. Now leaving in the dead of night was to be another first for us and, of course, being the adventures of Picaroon, was not without incident. Just to complicate things our thing that winds up the anchor, all 60lbs of it, had been playing up when we’d had all the fiasco with setting the hook in Cap Mole the day before. This was going to mean hauling in the chain and anchor, manually whilst Jackie, back on the wheel inched the boat forward, and because we’d had all the fun anchoring it now meant we had 180ft, or more, of heavy chain out with the anchor at the end of it. So there I am balanced precariously on the bowsprit, heaving on this chain, in the pitch black, illuminated only by a torch that I’ve lodged on the deck pointing in my general direction. It’s very slow and sweaty business but inch by inch, foot by foot, and my puny muscles crying out stop, stop, stop, the chain ends up back on board. As it was dead calm, Jackie was able to leave the wheel and work the windlass as I hauled away for Rosy, and finally the anchor was visible in the crystal clear water 30ft below. Bear in mind it’s 2.30am, so it came as some surprise that out of the darkness there appeared a row boat with four Haitian guys, one is balanced on the bows and is helping me lift the last 30ft. Why on earth they’re out in the bay at this time we can only guess, maybe they came to say goodbye, maybe they were up to no good, but anyway the help with our hook was much appreciated. So at last the anchor was up and, although I’m dripping with sweat and exhausted, we’re able to slowly motor, in calm waters, the two miles to the open sea with me perched on the bowsprit teasing the anchor into position, whilst also shining a torch on the water to spot any fishing pots, which after our experience in Labadee we really didn’t want to repeat. Under a blanket of stars we followed Tulum 3 out into the Windward Passage, which wasn’t windy at all, just a gentle swell that rolled us to and fro, as Mr engine Sir purred away below deck pushing us at about 5 knots away from Haiti, its dark silhouette soon melting into the nights blue black horizon and a crescent moon spread a pale glow onto Picaroons wake. By first light, around about 7am, there was a gentle breeze that had sprung up out of the NE and Tulum 3 radioed us to say they were going to put up their sails and we did the same. Both Lisa and Rudolf are lifelong sailors, who hate motoring and sail at any opportunity and, according to Rudolf, this breeze, which was freshening all the time, was just what we needed. “It’s going to be a sleigh ride” whooped Rudolf, and for a few moments our VHF was filled with the sound of Led Zepplin coming from the cockpit of Tulum 3. “Ten knots” calls Rudolf, whilst we’re happy with 7.5 which is about as fast as we’ve ever sailed in Picaroon and we’re only on Gib and Mizzen. By late morning the coast of Cuba is clear ahead of us, and the sail across has been a dream, much faster than we had planned. The tiny white triangle of Rudolf and Lisa’s Tulum 3 sparkled in the morning sun, about two miles ahead, but this was to be expected; it wasn’t a race, they were always bound to be the hare, and Picaroon the tortoise. “You’re going to come second” said Rudolf smugly on channel 68. We didn’t care, we we’re just enjoying the sailing, which is so much more of a joy after the nightmare of motoring from Labadee. With sails set, Picaroon’s motion is a different animal, and we’re making good progress along the mountainous south coast of Cuba, with a fair breeze pushing us towards Santiago. The angle of the wind requires us to take long tacks back and forth all day as Cuba slips by to starboard and as daylight fades we’re about 8 miles out into the windward passage with the seas building and we decide that, without any electronic wind instruments for night sailing, we should head back towards the relative shelter of the coast. Just before dark we fired up the engine and furled the gib. With the wind blowing now at about force five to six this proved to be a bit of a disaster of cracking sails and flying sheets but after a minute or two of sheer panic all was well and we turned to complete the night passage to Santiago under engine and mizzen which we left up to try and give Picaroon some stability in the rising swell and breaking waves. It was going to be another difficult and long night as we inched our way on the chart plotter along the southern coast of Cuba, about 2 miles away. We took one hour watches, fighting the invisible waves that every now and again visited the cockpit as we momentarily lost control, buffeted by some rogue swell, it was decidedly unpleasant and a real struggle to stay focussed and on course, with tiredness engulfing us both, as well as aching arms legs and numbed feet fighting the unforgiving motion of Picaroon. The night went on and on, and at about 11.30pm we neared the blazing lights along a darkened coast of Guantanamo Bay. We had been warned to give this place a wide berth, maybe eight miles, but we checked the charts that seem to indicate that two miles would be fine, so we stayed about two and a half miles off, trying to catch some shelter from the coast rather than be further off shore where the seas were more than we wanted to deal with, even where we were was difficult enough. Guantanamo took forever to pass, we seemed to be stationary. The red shaded area on the chart, an absolute no go area, slipped by at the speed of a sloth, and all the time the waves would try and push us towards the shore and the dreaded red area, but with some considerable effort we managed to avoid running foul of the US navy no go zone. Then, just before midnight, I’m dozing in the cockpit whilst Jackie is at the wheel, there’s a commotion that brings me bolt upright and the boat is being bathed in a brilliant blinding searchlight. The VHF, which should have been on channel 16, but is on 72 from the last contact with Rudolf. I dash down below to respond to a rather curt sounding US coast guard. “Sailing vessel identify yourself, this is the US coast guard you have entered a restricted area, please respond switch channel 16” Meanwhile up in the cockpit Jackie has panicked, disoriented by the bright lights, she’s going round in circles with the waves washing the decks. Below on the VHF I’m now in conversation with the guy on the boat with the big light. “Turn off your stupid spotlight or this suicide yacht lady is going to blow you all to kingdom come with our special laser guided bazooka” Well that’s what I wanted to say, but thought better off it and said, “sorry we’re just trying to stay close to shore as it’s very rough further out.” “Turn away from the restricted zone and head out one mile sir” says the cold curt voice. “we will do no such thing, it’s hell out there that’s why we’re here dumbo” I wanted to say, but instead said, “sorry, we’ll do just that” Thank you said the voice, have a nice day, or something like that, and I hastened back to the cockpit to find Picaroon headed back the way we had just come. Unable to function, Jackie passed the helm to me. She had been so disorientated by the blinding spotlight that nothing was making any sense and Picaroon was wallowing like a headless chicken. Somehow we headed away from the red zone, and got back on course without any further ado from homeland security and sped off into the night at four knots to continue our crawl towards Santiago. We had lost all contact with Tulum 3 at this point, although we heard them call us for some reason they never heard us and we assumed they must be miles ahead and perhaps already in Santiago. At 7.30am we sailed into the bay of Santiago passing some imposing fort on the cliff top above the entrance. We were given co-ordinates by the Guarda Frontera, which I wrote down wrong, and dropped the anchor in front of the Marina. Tulum 3 were nowhere to be seen. The windlass that had failed in Cap Mole refused to work here as well so I dropped a load of chain and Picaroon came to a stop in the calm bay of Santiago yacht club. We were in the wrong place, but after explaining our difficulties, the Marina manager said it was OK they would come out to us where we were, which they did in the shape of Louis, who shared our last beer with us and welcomed us with open arms to Cuba. Three hours later, Tulum 3 entered the harbour; seemed the hare had been pipped by the tortoise by almost three hours, and wasn’t quite so smug after all.
We’re still here; day 9 in Labadee on the 3rd April, 2015 and several turns of events have occurred. After rejoicing about the successful fix Colin did on our transmission oil leak, we decided we would have a day off from doing jobs and relax a little, maybe go over and visit the village and see a bit more of this beautiful bay. We’ve seen quite a bit, having dragged our anchor several times but this time we would get the dingy down and go ashore. So on Sunday morning we were sitting with our morning cup of tea, enjoying the tranquility of the bay, when Colin noticed something was missing from the deck. Oh no! our lovely Yamaha generator was gone. We were stunned! Suddenly everything changed; the friendly welcome we had had from the villagers now felt strained and we were suspicious of everyone who had paddled or motored out to our boat. Then we blamed ourselves for being stupid and not locking it up or putting it away, after all this is Haiti; one of the poorest countries in the world. Later that day we continued with our plan and got the dingy down off the deck. Still in a daze we set off for the village, but now it seemed more sinister and as we neared the shore I said to Colin “let’s just motor around for a bit” and he readily agreed. We ended up at a small restaurant away from the village, at the head of the bay, and had a couple of beers, bought a bottle of rum and motored back to our boat. We stopped by to visit the only other foreign vessel in the bay, a beautiful wooden ketch with a crew of four French people. They immediately told us they had had their dingy, outboard motor and ten gallons of fuel stolen too. That night the weather turned and we sat in the rain and, over a rum of two, we discussed our predicament. We had fixed the transmission problem but we weren’t sure it would hold out all the way to Cuba, we were now very short of diesel, water and supplies and, on top of all that, we had no means of receiving weather information. The biggest spoiler though, was that we didn’t feel safe here anymore; Colin had been sleeping on the deck when the robbery took place and I am forever grateful that he is such a sound sleeper; if he had woken up and challenged the thieves……well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Was this whole enterprise one big folly? That night the weather was awful, with a huge surge in the bay, we were buffeted about all night, with every bang and clang making me leap out of bed to check our position and wonder if anyone was on deck. In the morning we resolved to go to Cap Haitian and get our departure paper, so it was a repeat of the fiasco at the Port, taking over three hours, with our new found friend, Jean, tagging along. I had confidently told the Port Captain our destination was again, Santiago de Cuba, but I felt a flicker of doubt about that. We dropped into quite a decent hotel, had lunch, and used their Wi-Fi to access the weather and contact my daughter, who would surely be worrying about us by now. We studied the weather for the passage to Cuba, which looked okay but the window was quite slim, then we had a quick look at the weather going the other way, which, at a quick skim through, also seemed to look okay. Later that night, we continued to discuss our predicament and made the decision to limp back to Luperon, via Monti Cristi. It seemed the sensible thing to do. Next morning, as we were busy putting the boat to rights for departure, we listened to chatter on the VHF radio between the cruise ship captain and the ‘island manager’. She was warning him about a surge at the pier; 1.5metres. What have you done with the weather, the captain asked, you need to do that sun-dance. I could only agree, it had been drizzling on and off for two days now. Something should have rung alarm bells, but we were determined to get out of here so we carried on with our preparations. Setting off just after the cruise ship docked, we zipped up our foulies and headed for open water, hoping the rain would clear up once we were offshore. The rain did clear up but the seas were enormous and, hobby-horse-ing against the wind and the waves, we were being tossed about like a cork. After five hours we had only managed ten miles, we had another thirty to go and we had used up more of our precious diesel; our only course of action was to turn around and head back to Labadee. From ten miles out, the cruise ship looked like a tiny toy but as we surfed the waves back towards the coast, it grew and I was keeping a nervous eye on the time. Most days the cruise ships had left around 4.30pm and it was coming up to 4pm; should be enough time to get in before….hang on a minute, the ship was moving and had just left the pier. “Radio the Captain, Colin, and do it NOW” I shouted and Colin ducked down below to talk to the Captain of the Freedom of the Seas. He sounded very calm, said they were heading North and “if it was okay with us, we can pass starboard to starboard”. Okay with me, I was just relieved he was now aware of us as we must have looked like a dot bobbing about from the bridge of his huge vessel. Back in the bay, we anchored (twice) and lay back exhausted after the days’ rough ride. Feeling pretty rough ourselves the next morning, we noticed a sailboat on the horizon and a familiar voice came over the VHF radio. “Picaroon, Picaroon, Tullum III, over”. It was our friends, Rudolf and Aliza, from Luperon. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to hear that voice but VHF radios only work in line of sight and Colin was struggling to get through. The sailboat we could see was slowly disappearing and I felt like Robinson Crusoe unable to flag down a potential rescue ship. After a while the radio crackled into life again, and this time Rudolf managed to tell us he was five miles out and on his way, with another boat, Royal Blue, just two miles ahead. Yippee! I scampered about the boat with my binoculars trying to get first sight; the sailboat we had seen disappearing wasn’t Tullum III after all. An hour later and our friends were anchored close by and we put down our dingy and paddled over to their boat. Rudolf talked about their engine troubles on the passage from Luperon, which sounded just as bad as ours. Then we told them about our predicament and how we planned to head back to Luperon. “Come to Cuba, we have the weather and a spare transmission cooler” Rudolf said. Well, I suppose, safety in numbers and all that. We both needed diesel so Colin and Rudolf agreed to go to Cap Haitian, next morning. Having done that journey twice now, Colin didn’t relish the idea but it was the only way to get diesel and without fuel we would be going nowhere. By midday, the plans were laid; Willy had agreed to go with the boys and they set off with empty jerry cans. Just before Colin left, I had noticed the depth on our Garmin chart-plotter had dropped dramatically and we had taken in about twenty feet of chain to haul us away from the coral we seem to have drifted over. I waved goodbye with a smile and a little foreboding. Now I was alone on the boat. It was rolly in the bay and there were strong downdrafts from the building cumulus clouds skittering across the top of the surrounding hills. At nearly low tide I heard a dull thud, then another, then another a bit louder. Oh what now! I looked down into the crystal clear turquoise water and, sure enough, we were perched above a large chunk of coral and were bumping on our keel. What to do? I started the engine and motored forward a little to get away from the danger. Now, there’s 40 feet between the helm and the bow where the anchor chain is so I couldn’t re-anchor on my own, could I? I ran forward to see if I could make out whether we were adrift, then back to the helm to check the depth again, all the time trying to quell the rising panic. Picaroon was back over that rock so I tried going forward again; nothing, not an inch, we were aground. I got on the radio to Aliza on Tullum III, but I didn’t hold out much hope of help as she was alone on her boat with, I thought, no means of getting over to me. ”I can put down my Kayak and come over if you like” she said calmly. I said I would try to get off the rock, on the next roll of swell, but, yes, if would be good to have her come over. ‘I’ll just put on some clothes” she said and within ten minutes she had paddled across and we discussed the problem calmly together. Aliza has been sailing all her life and her experience was reassuring as she checked the chain and looked around at our position. “If it was me, I would re-anchor” she said and I agreed. Aliza would ‘man’ the windlass whilst I steered Picaroon to a safer position. I had to get the chain lock off and find Aliza some shoes as she would have to do the Colin-trick with a foot to stop the anchor chain jumping. Suitably kitted-out and an agreement on signals (I’ll just shout ‘anchor’s up’), we set off. With no shouting or frenzied activity, the anchor came up easily and we did a regal circumnavigation of the bay, avoiding the many curious ‘Tap-taps’ and fishing boats until we were in position and I shouted “This’ll do Aliza”. With the anchor down and 180 feet of chain out, we relaxed back in the cockpit for a while until we were sure the anchor was holding and Aliza paddled her Kayak back to Tullum III. My savior, I couldn’t thank her enough. There was still a big surge in the bay and Picaroon was rolling strongly with it, so I was thankful when I saw Colin returning on a tap-tap, just in case we had to move again. How was your day on board alone? he asked. “Oh it was a bit Rock ‘n Roll” but I was quietly pleased I had managed to handle the situation, albeit with the help of my friend. Without Aliza’s help, I would have spent all day motoring off that rock and rolling back again. Thank heavens for the camaraderie of sailors.
As you know I hate engines, and now I hate transmissions because ours has decided to fail. Fail to engage with the engine that is humming along perfectly, but the bit that connects the engine to the transmission, doesn’t. Something has gone kaput as they say in all the troubleshooting manuals. It’s called a velvet drive, and I think it’s some sort of hydraulic thing that engages the clutch, that connects the A, being the engine to B, which is the propeller. That has caused us a little problem in so much as we don’t have, in effect, an engine. Well we do have an engine but it’s not connecting with the drive shaft that works the prop, This funnily enough reminds me of a group/band that used to rehearse at my studio in Ulverston. They were a white reggae ska band that went by the name of Bad Transmission, and I’m wondering if they had ever been sailing on an old boat. Probably not, but at one time they had obviously had a problem with their transmission, and maybe we should skype them and find out if they ever got it fixed, and how, but then I remember we’re in Haiti; internet, Skype, I don’t think so. There’s always a bit of water swishing around the bilge under the engine but the other day it had sort of strawberry jam lumps swirling about in it, I paid it no mind….wrong. We’ve got a serious leak, somewhere on the transmission, and not a slow leak. Yesterday I topped it up so we could use the engine enough to move the boat away from the jet ski area to a quieter corner. Within an hour most of this new fluid was in the bilge which can only mean the leak is now quite big, but as yet we’ve still to locate it. That’s going to be todays job, because if we can’t locate it and fix it we won’t be going very far at all. The plan was to put some oil rags under where the leak seemed to be, one in the bilge and one under this cylinder thing that ATN said cooled the transmission fluid from the sea water pump. Then we would partly refill the transmission and fire up the engine to see if we could spot the leak. Immediately on starting the engine the rag under the cooler showed where the leak was, and it was somewhere under this impossible-to-get-at cooling cylinder, about 10 inches long and a couple of inches around. It had to come out, somehow. In fact it wasn’t fixed anywhere except being held in place by the pipes that went into and out of it. Before we set off I had noticed this when cleaning the solenoid connections nearby, and thinking that’s odd it should be fixed to something, I had decided to tie-wrap it to a nearby bracket, thinking I was doing the right thing. Wrong! There were four pipes, two being sea water pipes, in and out with hose clips, easy to get at, if I stretched upside down and at arms-length, with Jackie shining a torch because it’s in a dark dismal black hole at the rear of our engine, I could just about reach. Then there were two high pressure pipes, that I hoped I wouldn’t have to disconnect as I’d never disconnected high pressure hoses before and was hoping I could leave them attached, but in the end I had to bite the bullet and undo one of them. After much struggling and swearing I was able to free it enough from the engine to turn it upside down. There was a gash, and a small hole in what turns out to be a copper cylinder, and it was all shiny as opposed to the rest of the body that was blistered old yellow paint. My fix with the tie-wrap had caused the cylinder to rub up against the bracket and had worn it clean through. I needed to patch this hole on a high pressure cylinder somehow. My mind went back to a fix on a hot water Cylinder that my brother had done in the basement of Ford house where we used to work. I thought I could try the same fix here. All I needed was a copper patch and some solder. I knew I had the solder, and perhaps even a bit of copper pipe to make a patch with. Just as I was filing clean around the hole a local Haitian guy arrived on a jet ski, and reckoned that some guy in the village could fix that for me. So I hopped on to his jet ski, which took off at a thousand miles an hour, making the half mile trip ashore in less time than it takes to say Wow. There’re naked kids playing at the edge of the sea, a gaggle of chickens, two guys mending nets as Noah, I think was his name, went off to fine this ace engineer, although I couldn’t see a workshop, just a few shanty town huts, and a guy cooking something in a pot on an open fire. Noah comes back with a young guy who has a short string of solder in his hand. Noah, who speaks a bit of English, tells me he will put it in the fire to heat it up then block the hole with solder. Not quite the sort of engineering I had in mind, and with this precious bit of the boat being roasted in a fire, well, as politely as I could, I said no, I’ll find another way, and had him wiz me back to the boat. After lunch I managed to find a bit of pipe and a soldering torch. The torch was one of those Ronson types and I wasn’t sure it would heat it up enough. I cut and flattened a piece of copper and Jackie cleaned it till it was as shiny as a new pin and I moulded it to the shape of the cylinder. Then I got to work covering the patch with solder, plenty of flux, and managed to tin the patch easily. The cylinder took a lot longer to tin the area around the hole but, eventually I thought it was time to try the fix, securing the patch with a tourniquet of steel wire, and more flux. The end result didn’t look pretty but seemed to have worked. Problem was that the only way to test it was to put it back where it came from, a job for the next morning. It came out of a very awkward spot and was almost as awkward to get back. We both lost a lot of sweat, but with a little swearing it was all piped up and ready to go. Fingers crossed, oil topped up, and a bit of oil soak up rag underneath to show any tell-tale signs of a leak. Anyway, we fired up the engine, and after about 15 minutes, checked for leaks; nothing, so hopefully it will last long enough to get us to Cuba, and beyond. Had I not seen Peter fix that hot water cylinder back in England, I’m not sure I would have known how to tackle this, so it’s funny how those little learned tricks can prove very helpful in what was a mini crisis, a long way from help, in a strange, to us anyway, country, Haiti.
Jackie is scrambling up the companionway ladder in a state of panic, COLIN! Snapped out of my noodling about transferring music files on the laptop in the cockpit, I can see steam and an ominous hissing sound coming from the engine compartment. Jackie stumbles onto deck saying turn off the engine, which I’m already doing, going down into the boat where the kill switch is located. I’m there inside of two nano-seconds and the engine dies. Below deck it’s like a sauna, something has blown. Before I left my seat I knew what the problem was. The raw water seacock that feeds the cooling system to the engine hadn’t been opened. We’d been away for twenty four hours and this had been closed whilst we were off the boat and I’d forgotten to turn it back on prior to starting the engine to top up our batteries. It’s the most stupid of mistakes, and one of the first things we ever learned about boats and engines. Always check the sea cock is open, or watch for the water being pumped out of the back of the boat, and although we always do this, for some reason neither of us had done these simple checks today. It could be a disaster, and a very costly one at that. We both sat in the cockpit with our heads in our hands imagining the worse. The hissing stopped, but the temperature gauge hovered at around 200 degrees, it’s usually 160. I venture down below and grab a torch, and carefully open one of the engine doors, and peer in. There’s a small pipe hanging down with the thermostat cap on the end, everywhere is dripping wet but apart from this the rest of the engine looks normal except a tad hotter than usual. On closer inspection it appears that the thermostat cap housing has blown clean out of the tank. It had been held in there by some sort of high temperature sealant, which I had never noticed. This had obviously been a DIY fix that had been done a long time ago and today it failed. It may have saved the engine though. We’ll have to check the impeller on the raw water pump, reseal the cap back into the tank and probably an oil change. Down at JRs’ for our supposed last trivia quiz night we seek out advice from little Ray and Rudolf, both who know a bit about engines. “Was the paint on the engine bubbling” asks Rudolf, “if not you may be OK, just fix the cap back with some metal epoxy and fire up the engine, and see if you’ve got water coming out of the exhaust” Little Ray reckons the raw water impeller may need to be replaced. Their joint prognosis is that it may not be as serious as we’re imagining. Me, Jackie and Ray, dubbed the ‘Ancient Brits’, come third in the quiz, although tonight the contestants are a bit thin on the ground and there’s only three teams. Of course it’s very biased towards the American cruisers with questions like how many sesame seeds are on a MacDonalds hamburger bun. I ask you, how are English people supposed to know that? It’s not exactly Brain of Britain stuff. We demand a few European questions, but when asked what is the emergency number used in the EU we say 111, turns out to be 112, better not have a heart attack these days. Anyway, talking about heart attacks I digress, and back to the steaming hulk of our Izuzu. Next day, today, we get hold of some of this special metal epoxy glue, courtesy of Gary, last nights’ quiz master. We clean up the old cap and its surrounding hole. This involves me hanging across a now cold engine, inside its cupboard, with a file, small cold chisel and emery paper making everything shiny. On deck Jackie is doing the same with the thermostat housing and after about a couple of hours we’re ready to glue. You can’t hang about with this epoxy stuff, four minutes is all I’ve got to coat both surfaces after mixing the two compounds together, and just one shot at it otherwise it will all have to be chipped off and start again, it’s a delicate balance. Over lunch as the glue sets I get out the cruisers bible of mechanical and electrical fix your boat manual by Nigel Calder, or as we have dubbed it ‘ATN’, (according to Nigel). Turning to the section on overheated engines ATN suggests we should check the impeller on the raw water pump that wizzes round at great speed as it’s attached to the engine by a fan belt. It needs water to lubricate its little rubber fins as it wizzes round. Without water it’s likely to get very hot and damage some of the fins. So after lunch I get down and dirty with the engine again to remove and examine the impeller. It’s a job I’ve done a few times now and, although a bit awkward and tricky, I know how to do this. Once detached I undo the screws on the backing plate to reveal the little impeller. What should look like a miniature Ferris wheel is actually just a mangled rounded hub of rubber with bits of debris in the housing. It’s fucked, to use a technical term. It’s a dead impeller, it is no more, it is bereft of life, the chance of it swishing water is less than nil. Luckily we have at least four of these babies on board all wrapped up in their new plastic packaging, just in case. There’s knack to prizing the thing out with a couple of screw drivers, (not recommended by Jabsco) but shown in ATN’s bible and after a bit of heaving the old one pops out. After a thorough clean-up we put it all back together and re-attach the pump to the engine. We’ll leave the glue to set overnight and tomorrow start the engine once we’ve topped up the coolant that we lost. The plan of sailing to Cuba on Saturday has been postponed as we now need to test our fix. This puts us back at least twenty four hours so we’ll have to check the weather window tomorrow and see if we can still leave Sunday or Monday. The whole idea of choosing this life was supposed to be about sailing on a stiff breeze to exotic locations, basking in the barmy tropics, swimming with Dolphins, communing with nature and living the dream. Nowhere in the plan was the grit and grime of dealing the complexities of diesel engines and the myriad of systems aboard a boat. It’s a constant battle. If it’s not rust it’s blockages, or it’s leakages, it’s loose connections, or worn out bits that jam, or come loose when they should be jammed. Whichever way you look at it, it’s not sailing, it’s not cruising, it’s simply another day of fixing boats in exotic locations. On top of all the gizmos and gadgets that threaten to hijack your idyllic picture of a life on the ocean waves, you have to factor in human error. On top of all that technology and engineering, ready to stop functioning at the worst moment, you place stupid people and what do you get, oh I don’t know, “all part of the adventure”, as one cruising wife described it to Jackie……. Ran the engine for an hour today and we seem to have a working engine again.