Thursday 9 March 2017

Passage Log – Soper's Hole, Tortola, BVI to Montego Bay, Jamaica

Once again internet connections have been so poor it has been impossible to include photos.

After much deliberation and prevarication over the last few weeks I finally made the decision to sail to Montego Bay, Jamaica to meet up with Sharon and the 'kids' for my Birthday. They arrive by air on 1st March and leave on 10th March and so I had a fairly short window to aim at involving an 800 mile passage with some big bits of land in the way (Puerto Rico and Hispaniola). In stable trade wind conditions it should not be too much of a problem but the weather over the last few days and for the next few was anything but stable. For Tuesday the 21st the forecast was for North Westerlies of 12-20 knots but then a day or so of variable light winds were due until Thursday when the trades were forecast to return. If it wasn't for the small window we would wait for the trades to return but whilst that would give us a shorter passage there was a risk of us having to wait even longer and thereby eroding the 10 days with Sharon and the kids. The die was therefore cast, we would leave ASAP on Tuesday and make as much ground as possible in the North Westerlies and then suffer the variable winds whilst hopefully making some progress until the trades returned – hopefully on Thursday.

During the day on Monday I moved the boat from the Anchorage at the mouth of Soper's Hole on to a mooring right at the head of the bay. The wind had increased (there wasn't supposed to be any) and the boat was being set too close to the shore for my peace of mind. This only came about by accident because I had left a bag on the boat and on returning to retrieve noticed the changed situation. My first move was to go back ashore and find Mick to appraise him. However, in my state of mild angst I managed to leave my sandals on the boat and therefore after having walked a mile in bare feet I returned to the dinghy and back to the boat and moved.

I found Mick shortly afterwards and we had a beer shopped for lunch returned to the boat to eat and then later went back ashore to shop for the passage to Jamaica. I also visited customs and immigration to clear the boat out. After our shop we invited Dan a single handed American aboard for evening drinks and enjoyed his very talkative company for an hour or so before heading ashore for a meal.

The BVI and neighbouring USVI are basically holiday destination for the Americans. Due to me not appreciating that the US Visa Waiver programme (ESTA) did not cover private boats we had no USA visas and therefore even if we had the time we would not have been able to visit the USVI. However, I doubt that they could be much more American than the BVI; the only reminders of Blighty being the odd red telephone box and driving on the left. Even the currency was USD. The islands are undoubtedly very pretty and if we had more time and fatter wallets we would probably have gained a more positive impression of the BVIs than that with which we left – an American playground for the rich which in parts (certainly Spanish Town on Virgin Gorda) was past its prime.  Prices were almost double those of previous islands - $30-40 for a main course, $30 to pick up a mooring for the night and nearly $40 to take a marina berth. We anchored when we could!

Day 1 – 21st February

In the early hours of the morning Soper’s Hole was hit by some pretty viscous westerly squalls with driving rain. We were on a buoy close to the beach with one 'row' of boats in front moored with bow and stern anchors to stop them swinging and riding up on the beach in the unusual event of westerly winds. These arrangements were no doubt free. The stern anchors of a couple of the boats in front of us failed in the strongest of the squalls and they were driven aground on the beach. A great deal of frenetic activity by those concerned thankfully resulted in them pulling themselves off – and it appeared no major damage was sustained. Ahead of them on the beach was an old wreck, testament to the fact that others had been less fortunate.

Our plan was to leave at 1000 but by the time we had been ashore for breakfast a final look at the weather and sent all those last minute emails and then had a chat with Dan and admired his boat and got the dinghy stowed etc., etc., it was 1300. We still had to get fuel and the wind was still blowing strongly from the west and therefore it was quite a tricky operation to get alongside the fuel dock without messing up the manoeuvre. We were finally good to go around 1400 and motored out of Soper's Hole. The wind was very fluky around the numerous small islands in the vicinity and so we motored for an hour or so until in clear water and then laid a course between St John and St Thomas of the USVI, wondering whether, without Visas we were breaking any laws. We had a great sail down to the south-east corner of St Thomas where we passed through the narrow passage between the main island and “Great St James” a much smaller island. The good sailing and good progress continued through the night. The conditions made cooking a bit of a challenge but Mick knocked up an excellent dinner of grilled fish with fried potatoes and onions and a tin of veg (we could not find any fresh veg in Soper's Hole that was not chilled. Chilled food goes off so quickly in these temperatures when not in the fridge that it's just not worth buying the stuff (especially at BV prices).

Day 2 - 22nd February

The fresher north westerly winds continued until around 0900 when they started to die and by 1000 we were virtually becalmed about 25 miles south of Pastillo on Porto Rico. We have very limited fuel stocks – in total enough for about 36 hours of motoring and so for now we are going to have to sit this out and wait for the trades. That might take 24 hours or more and so we're likely to get rather fed up. The problem is not just that we're hardly moving but that the sails and spars are constantly bouncing around making a hell of a racket due to the swell. This last sentence written at 1140 local time. When will the wind return?

Almost 12 hours later it turned out. Shortly after writing the above I dropped all sails and we drifted for a couple of hours. After that the faintest of breezes came out of the west and after lunch we got the spinnaker up and managed to average just over a knot westwards until dark when we handed the spinnaker. After that until 2310 we continued to make very slow progress under mainsail and Genoa.

I cooked dinner – chilli fish stir fry (sort of) using the remains of the fish stakes from last night together with potatoes, sweet potatoes, onion and garlic. With the weather so benign we treated ourselves to rum cocktails before dinner and also polished off the remains of the cold white wine with our food.

'Sailing' in no wind in an old heavy boat is a very frustrating experience but at least there was very little swell and we were not therefore being flung about which is often the experience in open ocean. We were greatly relieved when the wind returned from the north east giving us almost 5 knot boat speed for a while. The wind reduced somewhat after an hour or so but we were able to maintain around 3 k for the next few hours and sailed roughly parallel with the southern coast of Puerto Rico. Around 0300 on Mick's watch it increased again and veered further east and we therefore closed on the south west corner of Puerto Rico where, from studying the weather maps we had downloaded before departure, Mick established we should get more wind. By 0500 when I came on watch it was time to gybe and head across the gap between Porto Rico and the Dominican Republic. At that point that put us on a dead run and therefore we continued under mainsail alone until daylight would simplify the operation of poling out the genoa.

As it turned out the wind continued to veer south of east and the pole was not required. Shortly after dawn I set the genoa bringing our speed up to between 4 and 5.5 k. Very pleasant sailing that will hopefully continue.

Well the good wind did not last, at least not consistently. Over the remainder of the day and indeed into days 3 & 4 the winds varied from very light – around 5 knots to light around 10 and our speed varied between 2.5 and 4.5 with occasional short spells of 5 knots. This was in line with the forecast we had before we left which also did not indicate any significant increase until Monday! Despite the slow speeds of day and the period of total calm our excellent start of the passage gave us a noon to noon run for 21-22 of 108 miles!

Day 3 23rd February

Progress continued much as before during the day with us averaging around 3.5 knots. Our noon to noon went down to 70 miles, that should improve over the coming days given it included a few hours of total calm! Sailing was for the most part very pleasant and were it not for the constant worrying about whether we would reach Montego Bay in time for the family reunion would have been very enjoyable.

Once again, the ship's batteries were unable to get us through the night without running the engine to top them up. This was the third occasion since Richard and Rayelle had joined us and was confirmation that the batteries – only two years old were officially knackered. We would have to take more extreme measures to conserve power for the rest of this passage because we really need to keep our meagre diesel stocks for when they are really needed (such as getting in and out of port or keeping clear of shallow water once in coastal waters when there is no wind). We only carry enough fuel for about 36 hours of motoring and this early in what might be a 10-day passage we don't know what's in store for us.

The highlight of the day was a dusk visit by a pod of Dolphins. This was the first wildlife we had seen on the passage apart from the odd bird or two and they were a cheering sight even if they had left it late in the day for us to fully appreciate their antics. Mick was cooking dinner – a chilli – whilst the show was going on and therefore saw even less of them than I did.

Day 4 – 24th February

Our noon to noon for 23-24 improved to 80 miles! At this rate we are looking at a 12-day passage and not arriving until 4th March. However, our forecast did predict stronger winds arriving late in the weekend and so I am reasonably hopeful of reducing that to 10 days. The sailing was once again enjoyable although during the periods of very light winds that were fairly frequent the boat speed dropped so that the light swell rocked the what little wind there was out of the sails causing them to slat and crash backwards and forwards. Very annoying and a strain on the rigging.

In the late morning, we made VHF contact with the yacht Ruth a 44-foot sloop that overhauled us about 6 miles in shore. I neglected to establish their nationality – I suspected they were German and Mick thought they were Scandinavian. They kindly provided us with some up to date weather information. They had a HF-Single Side Band radio that enabled them to down load weather data that was broadly similar to that which we had downloaded prior to departure. We chatted for a bit – discovered they too were heading for Jamaica and possibly Cuba from where they had to fly home at a future date which we did not establish. We swapped email addresses. Perhaps we'll see them in Montego Bay later on!

The afternoon saw us visited for some 20 minutes by a large pod of Dolphins and Mick captured some good video footage. They played chicken in the moderate bow wave. Lying down on the fore deck with my arm trailing in the water I was almost able to touch them!

My turn to cook dinner. It was the last of our fresh meat – stewing steak. I produced a tasty if somewhat mushy stew by over cooking the potatoes. Whilst I was cooking Mick analysed the electricity consumption of our various gadgets and appliances so that we could decide what to turn off if necessary in order to conserve power. The fridge was unsurprisingly the biggest consumer at 4 amps, the GPS/AIS was only 0.3/0.4 (when transmitting), the VHF 0.7, the LED masthead 0.1, the main LED cabin lights 0.5 and the big surprise – charging two mobile phones, 1.0.

First to go will therefore have to be the fridge. Now that we have used all our fresh meat the consequences of a few hours of no cooling every night should not be too bad. The milk and butter may suffer and our cans of beer will warm up but hopefully will chill down again by the afternoons.  At present the batteries seem to be able to deliver 30 AMP hours before the voltage drops to below 12 and therefore our approach will be to turn off the Fridge once 25 AMP hours have been consumed. In the longer term as previously mentioned I will need to get replacement batteries!

Day 5 – 25th February

My watch started at 0100 and the winds remained much the same – 5-10 k from the south with us making 3-4 knots on a westerly heading for a way point of the southern tip of the Hispaniola peninsula as at 0300 we had 94 miles to run to there – roughly half way. My watch passed without incident and we continued to average around 3.5 knots.

I had my usual early morning knap for an hour or so after completing my watch and on waking Mick reported that the wind had backed to the East and increased a little and so we poled out the genoa to port and continued westwards at a slightly faster rate. The swell continued from the south and so we were back into familiar rolling mode. Not as bad as during the Atlantic crossing but still very annoying with the wind constantly being rolled out of the sails to set them crashing and banging back and forth. Despite that it was a very pleasant day on the Caribbean Sea. Mick cooked a fantastic omelette for a late breakfast and during the afternoon I relaxed in the cockpit listening to music whilst Mick slept.

Our noon to noon run improved again – 94 miles this time and my confidence in making Montego Bay by the 2nd March rose. Later in the afternoon we improved the fixings for the cockpit table legs and were so pleased with ourselves that we used it at sea for the first time for afternoon beers and later for dinner. It's still strictly a fair-weather table however. Dinner was spam fritters, mashed potatoes and curried beans cooked my Mick and went down very well. We did feel as if we were participating in a Monty Python sketch however. Two middle aged blokes tucking into a spam lunch surrounded by nothing but endless miles of blue shimmering sea. As Mick said, the only things missing were our dinner jackets. We reflected on the passage so far and agreed that despite the anxiety about whether we would make our rendezvous and the frustrations caused by the slow progress we were pleased to be making the passage. Jamaica was off the beaten track for most cruisers and it was a fitting end to Mick's participation in the cruise. It would also be very rewarding to meet Sharon and the kids in Montego Bay having sailed there rather than by flying the 800 miles involved.

At dusk, we were visited by a small pod of Dolphins who quickly lost interest in our slow progress and dashed off to look for more exciting things to do. Mick took the first watch which was uneventful.

Day 6 – 26th February

I took over the watch with the good news that we were almost up to the southern point of the Dominican Republic and we had therefore covered half the distance between Tortola and Montego Bay, Jamaica. We decided we would give Haiti a wide berth just in case any pirate types were operating off her shores and therefore continued to head broadly west. Come daylight we would probably need to gybe to head up towards the north coast of Jamaica.

Shortly after taking over the watch the sea was suddenly crowded. First a Greek cargo ship on a reciprocal course and due to pass very close. I therefor called her up on the radio to make sure she knew we were around. Hot on her heals on a very similar course another vessel was heading our way. I could see her lights in the distance and there appeared to be another navigation light close by. We were not getting her name through on the AIS and so I was forced to call her up using just her MMSI number. I got no response after two attempts and then the cargo ship we had passed earlier called me up to inform of the vessel's name and that she was a tug towing a tanker. A few minutes later the tug called me up to explain the situation and to advise that I give a wide berth because the tanker was swing around a lot on the end of a 900-metre tow cable. I therefore called Mick up so that he could monitor the AIS whilst I took the helm over from Angus. Shortly afterwards I gybed the boat to ensure we remained well clear whilst the tug and tow passed by. Once back on our westerly course Mick was able to return to his bunk.

The rest of my Watch passed without incident with AS making around 4 knots and we had yet another pleasant day. The wind increased slightly and we were able to make 5 knots for much of the day. Bacon and eggs for breakfast – we now have enough left for one hearty breakfast each or two modest ones. The American bacon we bought in the BVI was mostly fat and the Large eggs were very small. Not a complaint (re the eggs) one would expect to make of America. It must be Trump's doing!

Returning to the problem of our ship's batteries we are now turning the fridge off half way through the night in order to conserve power. Last night our relatively high usage of the VHF when talking to the tankers that crossed our path generated a low battery warning and we therefore need to be conserve power more than originally anticipated. Our ice melted days ago before such drastic measures were taken and we had therefore had to forsake the evening ritual of a rum cocktail at sundown. Today however we experimented using chilled water in place of ice and the results were surprisingly good. Rum cocktails will be served at sundown for the remainder of the passage.

Sundown today was beautiful too.

My turn to cook dinner and the old favourite – corned beef hash (with chilli's) was the result. It too tasted surprisingly good but we are now down to our last onion, a couple of cloves of garlic and a couple of potatoes.

The forecast we had when we left and from SV Ruth a couple of days ago and from my pal Tony via Yellowbrick short txt, indicated the possibility of increased winds overnight. The area seemed small and there was also a possibility of slipping into an area of lower wind speeds and therefore after some debate I decided not to reef before dark in order to keep our speed up and have the best chance of staying with the good winds. I was confident that should it be necessary I would be able to reef without issues during the night.

The wind did in fact ease during the evening and our speed fell to 3-4 knots.

The wind remained light during the first half of Mick's watch but most annoyingly the swell increased and we were therefore back into horrible rolling with the wind being constantly rolled out of the sails. This cause the main boom to shake significantly making a horrible crashing noise that sounded as if it were physically bashing into something. I couldn't sleep through it and got up to investigate the cause. We couldn't see any reason for it. Thankfully the wind then filled in a little and the swell died down and the noises caused by the rolling returned to tolerable thresholds.

Day 7 – 27th February

Shortly after coming on watch at 0100 the boat was exceeding 6 knots. The wind had indeed risen and whilst 6 knots under full sail is fine the prospect had to be that the wind would increase further. It was now time to put in a couple of reefs and I therefore had to drag Mick out of his bed to help out. Just as we were about to start the reefing procedure the AIS collision alarm went off – a tanker was crossing us from the starboard bow about 16 miles off. To reef we must head into the wind to get the wind pressure out of the mainsail in order that it can be hauled down. Also, because we were sailing with the wind directly behind us the genoa was polled out to one side and the pole had to be disengaged first. Heading into the wind would head us towards the crossing ship which could potentially confuse/annoy the skipper. However, I decided we had enough time to reef and get back on course before the tanker was likely to be aware of us at all. First job was to disengage the Genoa sheet from the pole. A fairly easy operation with two people, one to ease the sheet to take the pressure off it the other to open the jaws at the end of the pole. Once up on the foredeck I just had to pull a line on the pole which I could do from the mast and give the sheet a tug. With Mick at the helm we could then head up into the wind and within 5 minutes I had got 2 reefs in the main and was back in the cockpit without getting even a little damp.

I then made radio contact with the tanker to ensure she knew of our whereabouts and over the next 30 minutes we sailed on under just the reefed mainsail waiting for her to pass. Then the genoa went back out, albeit slightly smaller than before and we were back to 5.5 – 6 knots indicating that the wind had continued to increase.

As dawn approached another ship approached from the same direction; a cruise liner this time – The Caribbean Princess whom we had come across before. I got on the VHF radio again. At 12 miles she reported she was not receiving our AIS transmission but could see us on Radar and agreed most helpfully to pass aster of us. She later very helpfully radioed back to confirm that she did receive our AIS transmission at 4 miles off.
Days 8 & 9 – 28th February and the 1st March

Very little report especially as I am writing this after a long delay on 9th March! That is partly down to laziness but also to poor internet connections and being preoccupied with our family rendezvous. Progress over the two days was up and down with the winds so that sometimes we thought we would be lucky to get to Montego Bay by the 2nd and at other times we thought we might arrive before the family were due to land on the 1st at 1630. We did have to motor for a few hours on the 29th when the winds went very light but later that night they picked up and for the remainder of the night and throughout the 1st we made excellent progress. So much so that we reduced sail on the afternoon of the 1st so as not to arrive before the family got to the Yacht Club at Montego Bay. In the event we arrived at dusk with the family on the quay side to welcome us in. It was a very special feeling to see them all clapping us in. Our timing was perfect.

Of course, there was no one from the yacht club around and it turned out that emails that I had thought I had sent earlier to confirm our arrival had not actually left my phone and they Club had assumed we would not arrive until after the 1st. The consequence was we were unsure where to moor up despite a multitude of ‘helpful’ suggestions from the family. Fortunately, there appeared to be space to go alongside at the end of the hammer-head pontoon which after much dithering on my part was what we did and I finally managed to get the hugs and kisses from everyone that I had been looking forward too. It was quite a strange experience to be surrounded by the whole family after months away from home. To compound the strangeness of it all we could not complete the immigration formalities that evening and therefore when the family left after dinner to return to their accommodation Mick and I had to stay on the boat!

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