Yacht FIONA, Georgetown, Guyana- 2 October 1995
I am going to call my first newsletter “You Can’t Get There from Here,” for reasons that will soon be apparent. Evgueni, Walter and myself took our departure from Block Is on July 7th. We arrived in Bermuda on the 12th, the only major problem being that I forgot the ship’s teapot. Apart from one hideous monstrosity on sale in Block Is I couldn’t find a replacement, but we were able to buy a traditional English teapot in Hamilton, Bermuda. Bermuda has gotten very noisy- two cruise ships pull into St Georges during the summer weeks and the passengers are wooed to the bars and nightclubs by loud disco music until the small hours. The “White Horse Tavern” used to be a matey publike place that sold drinks and fish and chips. Now the electronic music emanating from the White Horse can be heard a mile away. We anchored on the west side of the islands and did a little skin diving on the old sunken gunboat “Vixen”. We left on July 17th and dropped anchor in Marigot Bay, St Martin on the 23rd, experiencing nothing worse than the usual squalls on the way down. I wanted to see Kay and Dudley Pope again, old friends who lived aboard “Ramage” in the Caribbean for many years. I also wanted to lay in a good stock of Mount Gay rum, as St Martin has probably the lowest prices in the world for this lubricant of the seven seas. We bought eight cases, two less than when we were here in 1990 – we are cutting back on the drinking! Leaving St Martin on July 31st we fuelled up on the Dutch side and set sail for Barbados. About two days out we encountered a vicious tropical wave when we were east of St Lucia. The local radio stations were full of stories of massive flooding, we had winds to 50 kts in gusts and had 3 reefs in the main. We tied up for customs clearance in Barbados on August 4th and discovered the same storm had caused damage there too. A popular calypso singer called “the Great Carew” had been swept out to sea sitting on the roof of his house and we later saw the local coast guard bringing his body back. We stayed four days in Barbados, one more than planned because August 7th was “Crop Over” day, a traditional celebration for the harvesting of the sugar crops. A main street out of town was full of booths selling everything and there were parades with floats. When I was a young lad I used to read stories of intrepid explorers in the jungle who at some stage usually said “The drums, the drums!” Well they didn’t know nothing – only when you had experienced drum music relayed by banks of 20 inch speakers have you heard drums. These pockets of sonic energy were spotted all along the road and must have consumed kilowatts of power.
We left Barbados on August 8th heading southeast with the intention of rounding the eastern bulge of Brazil. This huge cape sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean to about 35 degrees W; halfway between New York and London. When we left Barbados we were at 12 degrees N and 59 1/2 degrees W, our destination was Natal, Brazil, at about 6 degrees S and 35 degrees W, a distance of about 2000 nautical miles. When I planned the trip I knew the wind and current would be against us but I was obviously suffering from hubris; Mother Nature was about to teach me a lesson. After we left Barbados we had very light and variable winds, mostly from the Southeast. Due to the equatorial current, which ran at 3 knots to the Northwest we made little progress. Fortunately there is a counter current which we were able to find with the help of the GPS receiver, which shows course and speed over the bottom. During this period gear began to fail. The jib roller furling stuck and I had to go up to the masthead to free it, once in the middle of the night. The jib halyard broke – another trip to the masthead. We got to the equator on August 25th at 42 degrees W, having crossed the Doldrums at about 6 degrees N with the help of the counter current, but it then faded. The pilot chart shows it going to the North. After the Doldrums we had heavy winds in the 30 – 40 kt range from ESE. After the roller furling was fixed so at least it would furl, the lower bearing was obviously unhappy. Shortly after crossing the equator the mounting bracket of the Aries self-steering broke and we decided we needed a little time in port to fix things. The only port was Sao Luis, lying 120 nautical miles downwind on the North coast of Brazil. We entered this port using our offshore chart, fortunately in daylight, on August 29th. The currents in Sao Luis are heavy, due to the tidal range, which is 18 ft when the moon is new or full. In the 1970’s it was abandoned as a major port due to shoaling of the bay. At full tide there is a full, wide bay, and at low tide immense sand banks with serpentine channels of deep water. The problem with the roller furling was that one half of a plastic insert forming the lower bearing had disappeared. At this point we met Sami Wassowf, polyglot and local fixer. He suggested a very typically Brazilian solution – use the half bearing that was left as a pattern and have new ones cast in aluminum. Amazingly enough this worked fine and a day later I had two aluminum bearing inserts at a cost of about ten dollars each.
Sao Luis is an old colonial city of about 1 million people. Local fruits are delicious and cheap. However other services are hard to find. We heard about a person living near our anchorage who was familiar with the laundry situation, but it turned out when we got there he simply let you use a sink in his garden. So Walter and I set to using the built-in scrubbing board. All the family thought this was very funny, and brought chairs so they could watch our performance in comfort. In the meanwhile a large Doberman, that prowled the compound at night, eyed us viciously from his cage and howled continuously in frustration.ÏWith our stores replenished and gear fixed we left Sao Luis on September 2nd, and after beating out of the bay heading east. We stayed within 30 miles of the coast, which meant the current against us was a little less but because it was so shallow the waves were steeper. Typically the sea is only 100 ft deep 30 miles offshore. The winds were high, 30 to 40 kts and we had 2 and 3 reefs in the main. At midnight on the night of September 4th I was just entering data in the log prior to changing watches when there was a loud report like a gunshot followed by wild flogging of the jib; the headstay had snapped. At the time the jib was fully reefed. We got the mess down to deck level but the roller furling extrusions were either bent or broken. The jib was torn due to the rig swinging violently against the forestay in the heavy seas. I really don’t know why the stay snapped at a point just under the upper tang – it was new in 1993. We braced up the mast with the spare halyard and jib halyards once we had the stay and sail lashed to the port lifeline. I was reluctant to give up our mileage to windward, so for a day we tried motor sailing in the hope of reaching Fortaleza, the next port east of Sao Luis. Although we struggled on for twenty-four hours it was clear we couldn’t make Fortaleza with the fuel on board, without the jib we couldn’t get to windward in the teeth of the heavy winds and seas, so we turned back once again to Sao Luis. This time it was dark when we arrived on September 8th. But this time we had local knowledge. When we got back we removed the sail from the shattered Profurl – not as easy as it sounds – and rigged the spare stay. While Evgueni stitched a wire rope to the luff of the storm jib, Walter and I rounded up Sami and his battered car. We went on a search for hanks or shackles so we could attach the storm jib to the stay. We eventually located 25 small steel shackles – when we returned to the boat FIONA was hard aground. It was a spring tide and the current had swept FIONA to one side of the channel which then dried out. The problem came when the tide reversed, for a couple of 60 ft ferries moored to the west of FIONA swung down in the flood current while FIONA was still stuck fast. We had a frantic hour keeping the ferries from damaging the self steering gear but we lost a stanchion and bent the stern pulpit. The next day, Sunday, we bent on the storm jib, reeved a new jib halyard as the old one had been damaged by strain caused by supporting the jib stay and roller furling gear. We tidied up the bent pulpit and then drank a little (?) of the Mount Gay rum. Monday we left and soon encountered the familiar conditions of heavy winds and seas. On Tuesday, September 12th, the main sail, which was double reefed, began to go. We lowered it and stitched in a patch and redid a seam. But an hour or two later it split from luff to leach. Somehow the cloth just seemed to have given up. At this point we had lost our two working sails, we had used all the spare halyards and stays and we were low on fuel. According to the log we had sailed 3216 nm since leaving Barbados, most of it to windward, making good about 1500 miles, but we were still 500 nm from Natal. With a heavy heart I realized we had punished the boat enough and we were not going to round the Cape this year. We needed major repairs to the stays, sails and furling gear. I decided to run off downwind, bide our time until the hurricane season was over in the Caribbean and then return there to make repairs. Georgetown, Guyana, looked like a good spot to head for, so we bent on the storm main, the only sail left and slowly made our way back through the Doldrums, and we pulled into the Demerara River on September 21st. Here in Georgetown we are tied up next to a rusting tugboat and the rotting pilings left when the Customs House burnt down thirty years ago. Very few yachts call here, so far four this year. The river is very muddy and foul. Thieves are rife in the dock area and we have hired a watchman who sleeps on the foredeck by day. Despite this, one of our screwdrivers was stolen when Walter and I were working on deck. We both went below for a moment and it was gone. We entered into Byzantine negotiations with a middle man and ultimately got it back for about US $5.00. There are also lots of pretty young women around the dock who smile a lot and giggle and suggest they “might be your wife”. As you may have deduced, people are very poor in Guyana, but there is a festive and exuberant air in the market with lots of smiles and banter. The market is very active with every conceivable item for sale; the local fruit is very cheap. Five year old rum is US $2.00 a bottle. The Guyanese have no coins, only paper money with a dollar worth 7/10th of a cent! I enclose a few as a souvenir. The public phones are free for local calls. We have been able to get some repairs done, including restitching the main sail. This was done by an old gentleman, entirely by hand, who used to make sails decades ago for the vanished fishing sail boats. We also managed to refill our tanks with diesel. We will leave soon and slowly make our way North, planning to be in St Martin in mid November. In view of the tremendous hurricane damage suffered since we were there I don’t know if we can get the stays and sails repaired there. One way or another we will try to be fully shipshape for a passage through the Panama Canal in February and then on to French Polynesia.