January 23, 2008

Adventures top to bottom

We set out from Georgetown first thing Saturday morning with less than favorable winds. Five other anxious boats departed the same day with the same hopes, each of us fighting into the wind but diverging on to our own strategy. Derek and I were sure we would shortly be lost in the wake of the newer, bigger boats. We chose to fall off the wind a few degrees to gain speed and make several long tacks to stay in the game. The day passed and dark clouds rolled in as the sun set and soon we were deep into what would be a long night of shifting winds and squalls. We watched as an approaching squall swallowed a boat to the south of us, then a boat to the west of us. The rain soon closed in around us and washed away the comfortable sight of the other boats. We sailed sixty miles through the night and at dawn were out of radio contact with our pack- but only eight miles east of where we were sixteen hours earlier.
We had sailed out beyond and around the protective islands and as we tacked back south in the morning, we trailed over the line of the Bahamian bank and hooked our first fish. A shark followed it in and ate it as we pulled it up to the boat. Our spirits were up and we put out another line and shortly hooked a huge Mahi Mahi. The sight of the Mahi is out of this world. Its green and bright yellow body are alien to this world. This time, as we brought it up next to the boat, we scrambled for a method to bring it in and it spooked, breaking the line at the last moment.
So we headed for the next bank off Samana Cay. On the charts the cay is surrounded by three thousand feet of water then an abrupt eighty foot depth. We hit it about lunch time, and hit it we did. With three lines out in flat calm water we could see eighty feet to the bottom. When we reached twenty feet of water beneath us we began to see coral heads reaching up for the surface. The GPS chart showed six feet deep and sandy. Nevertheless, Derek went to the bow to spot for shallow, threatening heads. Immediately he pointed for me to turn hard right, then hard left, then straight on. As the heads approached my end of the boat they were four feet beneath the surface and on both sides of the hull. We proceeded into a narrow channel, conversing in tense loud voices, until we could go no further. We had entered into a impassible coral field. Then the sea surge lifted us up and right on top of the reef. “Boom”- we landed square and the whole boat shook. “Boom…Boom…Boom” and we sat balanced on the reef, looking at each other with new faces. The next surge backed us onto a shallower head and it knocked our rudder up and out of its seat. We were getting beat up on this reef and now had lost our ability to steer. The third surge lifted us up over and off the reef and I gunned it for a clear area of water. We dropped anchor in a patch of sand and proceeded to dive on the rudder.
The rudder was dangling to one side and a bit chewed up. We were on the fringe of no where so we called a passing boat, to let them know our situation. It was Snark, our traveling buddies, so they stood by on the radio as we worked on the rudder. I held the rudder in line from underneath as Derek beat on the post from above, driving it back into place. It was as easy as it could possibly be to fix- any weather and we would have been in trouble.
So I have this big shark fear now that I have seen them rip fish away from us underwater as we hunt. I am pretty paranoid swimming around in the water. All the while fixing this rudder there was a typical sleeping nursing shark right under the boat and lots of edible fish. The Nurse is not supposed to be dangerous unless you manage to get your arm in its mouth. To be fair, they are not interested in us and have no real teeth, but I’m not tough and fear is rarely rational anyways- and so it goes. We lost all our trolling gear in that snaffoo on the reef. I lost a special rig that Jon of the Double Bryun had given me and we came all the way out to Samana to fish, so we couldn’t leave empty handed. So we geared up, intending to spear a fish without waking up the shark beneath us. We eased in like Navy Seals, speared a fish in less than twenty seconds and hysterically scrambled up the sides of the boat before the shark could get it or us. We timidly navigated out of the coral heads and set sail again with rice on the stove and fish in the oven.

Looking for more adventure, we drug the dead fish carcass behind the boat as we glided back out to sea. With the video camera out, we watched and watched and watched for a shark to jump out of the water feigning for our bait. So we watched, we slowed the boat and made splashing noises to simulate struggle, etc. What are the chances, eh?

Well, half an hour passes and we lose interest in the fish, but just then a school of Tuna boils just off the side of the boat and a dorsal fin heads toward us. A massive ocean white tip shark is now circling the boat and narrowing in on the bait. It danced around the carcass for fifteen minutes as we snapped photos underwater and took video from above. It was unbelievable. Sharks are out there, and they are near by, it seems, at all times.

With luck the adventure has begun. We have luck. Some would think we have had a lot of near-catastrophes, but those of us who pray for an adventurous life are nothing but grateful. From top to bottom we have experienced a few of what every sailor fears most. Days before we left Georgetown, by chance, we changed the mast anchor light and inadvertently found our mast rigging plate completely sheared off at the top, meaning we were moments from toppling our mast. And now we have hit a reef and been rudderless.

The story goes on as we were still only halfway to the DR. Our weather window was closing in twenty hours, so we came to a real tosser. There was another day of no wind, meaning we could motor straight to the Turks and Caicos bank where we needed to cross, but we were a few hours from being out of diesel. And when we reached the Turks bank we would definitely have to motor. We could change course to get diesel from a station that reportsed that it “may” have fuel but we would have to wait ten hours till it opened up. This was not an option, since once we had the fuel, our window for motoring would be over. So we leaned on our luck a little and pressed on. Sure enough, sailing vessel Prudence, another traveling buddy of ours, closed in on us and sold us some of their extra fuel. Thank you Prudence -you saved out backs! That five gallons got us all the way across the Turks and Caicos bank and into a safe anchorage. We did run out again and sailing vessel DIVA, who had provided safe waypoints across an incompletely surveyed bank, also sold us ten more gallons and we were set for the Dominican Republic.
We pulled an all-nighter and fought our way to Luperon, where we are now drying the boat out because everything and everything was drenched in the passage. Nothing was spared- Derek’s passport was too wet to stamp at the immigration office. We are stoked to be here and ready for a break from the boat. The reward of our long fight east has been the smiling faces, beautiful country, and cheap living that we have found here in the Dominican Republic.
All-in-all, the sailing has been hard on the nose and we are looking forward to the downwind passages to Central America.